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Little Sparrow
A Portrait of Sophia Kovalevsky

By Don Kennedy

“This book has many facts, and libraries concerned with developing a women's history holdings should acquire it.”


Little Sparrow is the first complete biography in any language of Sophia Kovalevsky, the nineteenth-century Russian mathematical genius, champion of equal education for women, and first woman professor of higher mathematics. She pushed the development of analytical mathematics — such as ultraelliptical functions — beyond that of anybody before her. From the French Academy of Science she won an award as important as the later Nobel prize.

Sophia Kovalevsky was born January 15, 1850, into the Russian nobility, daughter of a general, descendant on the paternal side from a Hungarian king and on the maternal side from German astronomers. She joined the nihilist movement at age 16. At age 18, in order to escape Russia and study abroad, she obtained parental permission to enter a marriage, which for five years remained platonic.

Though a woman, she obtained special permission to study at Heidelberg. When rejected for higher study at Berlin University, she was accepted as a special pupil by the foremost mathematics teacher of the age, Professor Karl Theodore William Weierstrass. After receiving a Gottingen doctorate magnacum laude, in abstentia, she returned to Russia to enter the intellectual life of St. Petersburg, to consummate her marriage, and to bear a daughter.

She was a friend of Dostoevsky, Turgenev, George Eliot, and other literary lights of the period, and she wrote an account of her Russian childhood that was considered on a par with Tolstoy’s book on his youth.

Kennedy’s work focuses less on the professional mathematician than on the unusual woman whose life reflects the plight of the female intellectual and scientist in Russia and Europe late in the century.

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