Author: Ibon Cancio, UPV/EHU Associated Professor in Cell Biology; researcher in the ‘Cell Biology & Environmental Toxicology’ (CBET) research group of the Plentzia Marine Station (PiE-UPV/EHU); Spanish scientific representative in the EMBRC Committee of Nodes

Sofia Pereiaslavtseva was born in Voronezh (Russia) in 1849 and we know little about her apart from the fact that she was a pioneering female marine zoologist (she was the first woman to arrive to many places in science). She was one of the first women worldwide to obtain a PhD in science, particularly in zoology (1876), from the University of Zurich where she initiated her studies in 1872. 

Zurich had become a hub for academic higher education of Russian women. In Zurich Sofia was among the organisers of the ‘Russian Public Library’, which became the centre of revolutionary youth. On the denunciation of the Third Section, the tsarist government issued a decree to bring back Russian students in European universities to their homeland, threatening them with reprisals in case of disobedience. Most left, but Sofia remained in Zurich to finish her studies.

While in Switzerland, she would visit Stazione Zoologica (now an EMBRC partner) in Naples for some months in 1876, becoming the first (although unofficial, see below) female visiting researcher at the station. In Naples she collected samples for her PhD dissertation that focussed on the form and structure of the olfactory organ in fish. Curiously enough, another woman, Linda Buck, would obtain a Nobel prize in medicine in 2004 for the characterisation of olfactory receptors in vertebrates (including fish). 

Sofia would return home to Russia and in 1880 she became the second director of one of the oldest marine stations in the world (opened in 1871), that of Sevastopol by the Black Sea. That could well be the first case of a woman leading a research institution worldwide. Her directorship ended after 10 years apparently due to bad relations with the very influential and important figure in embryological research: Alexander O. Kovalevsky (1840-1901), president of the Novorossiysk Society of Naturalists that promoted the Sevastopol station. She would remain the leading zoologist in the biological station but after a strong discussion with Kovalevsky, she finally resigned and left Sevastopol in 1891. During her time there she described dozens of invertebrate species in the Black Sea studying the structure, development and systematics of Turbellaria (flatworms) and ciliates (protozoans with cilia), and the development of rotifers (microscopic wheel animals) and crustaceans. In 1889, the 8th Congress of Russian Naturalists and Physicians chose Pereiaslavtseva as the chair of the zoological section of the Congress!! 

Image of Sevastopol biological station
Sevastopol biological station (image: public domain)

Leaving Sevastopol, Sofia struggled to survive, living with relatives in St Petersburg and occasionally working as a translator. The next year, the Imperial Moscow Society for Naturalists awarded her a travel grant to work in Naples and this time she worked there ‘officially’ occupying one of the Russian ‘tables’ for a 15-month stay from 1893 to 1894 (Stazione Zoologica was visited by scientists that occupied a research table during their stay that was rented, normally on a yearly basis, by governments, universities or associations). During that stay, she received word that she had been awarded the Kessler prize of the Russian Society of Natural Scientists for her monograph on the Turbellaria of the Black Sea. When the 9th Congress of Russian Naturalists and Physicians set up a collection for one of her monographs, she obtained funds that allowed her to settle in Paris working in the Natural History Museum for over two years. This gave her the opportunity to visit the Station Biologique de Roscoff (another EMBRC partner). When money ran out, Sofia returned to Russia and struggled to find an occupation in science. She would die in Odessa in 1903 according to some records from a brain tumour, and according to others, including friends, due to starvation.

Image of book cover: Sofia's monograph of Black Sea
Cover of Sofia Pereiaslavtseva book (image: public domain) 
Photo of P. ponticum Pereyaslawzewa

 

Sabrina Gaber
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