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Early Ukrainian Women Scientists: Part 3 – From Birds to Math, Space, & Plants in Space

In this final part, we meet the first of the scientists who are still living – and start to see the impact of the Russian war on individuals, and in one case, on someone’s life work. There’s lots of the future here, too – ending with the futuristic experiments to grow plants in space to support long missions.

This series covers a small selection from the massive legacy of early Ukrainian women scientists’ science, initiative, and courage – 15 amazing people born up to 1934, coming in groups of 5, in birth order. Each bio begins with a very short summary, so you can scroll through the pictures and summaries to get a quick impression of these people’s lives and achievements.

Usually, when I write posts about scientists in history, I’m talking about the barriers of gender and racial discrimination people faced. The scientists in this series also worked and lived through unimaginably perilous times. This post includes a woman imprisoned for years in a gulag (brutal forced labor camp for political prisoners).

As usual, great barriers to people in life often translates into the iniquity of historical erasure, too. For fellow Wikipedians, I note these scientists’ status on Wikipedia, in case you’re inspired to pitch in. For all the women in this series, there are articles that are thin or missing in English and Ukrainian – and all can be improved.

Tatiana Borysivna Ardamatskaya (1927-2011, aged 83)Ornithologist and environmentalist

Tatiana B. Ardamatskaya was a leading ornithologist who moved to the coast of the Black Sea in Ukraine after graduation. She spent her life studying the birds and ecology of the Black Sea, helping increase bird populations and extend their settlements. Her public advocacy increased awareness of the need for bird conservation, and she was one of the founders and first president of the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds.
Photo of coast with birds
Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, by Yu Moskalenko (via Wikimedia)

Tatiana B. Ardamatskaya was born in Saint Petersburg, USSR – then called Leningrad – in 1927. That’s the same year as the Black Sea Preserve was established in Ukraine – the place she would ultimately devote most of her working life to preserve. It’s near Kherson, where the Dnipro river reaches the Black Sea – an area of heavy fighting in the 2022 Russian war.

Ardamatskaya’s mother was a doctor, her father, a lawyer. She had 2 sisters. Because her father was a hereditary nobleman, he was deported to the Volga steppes in the 1930s. I couldn’t find out what happened to him. The mother and daughters were also forced to leave the city, and so moved to a nearby village. This is where the future-naturalist’s love of birds grew. She not only spent time in the woods and horse-riding in the fields, she nursed the chicks of owls, jackdaws, and magpies.

During World War 2, she helped her mother in the hospital. She was an external high school student, and she passed her exams after the war. Ardamatskaya had some kind of health problem for which a change of climate was recommended. She spent a year at Odessa University at the Black Sea, after which her health improved enough for her to return to Leningrad. The zoology department at Leningrad University was part of a renaissance of ornithology in the USSR, and she participated in research there, graduating in 1952. Her health issues arose again, so she moved back Ukraine.

Ardamatskaya’s first job was at the Azov-Syvash National Nature Park. It’s on an island near Kherson – close to the place featured in part 1 of this series, where Parchomenko observed the 1914 solar eclipse.

Azov-Syvash National Nature Park, Ukraine. Photo by Mykyta Peregrym (via Wikimedia)

She met her future husband there, fellow ornithologist Boris V. Sabinevsky. She worked there for a year, before the couple both moved to work at the nearby Black Sea Preserve. Ardamatskaya would work there for 35 years, and she spent the rest of her life on that coast.

Field conditions in those early years were rough, without heat and often with limited food as well. Her colleagues speak of staying in dilapidated shacks. Once she had children – 2 daughters – she would bring them on field trips. From 1953 to 1955 she studied the role of insectivorous birds in exterminating pests in forest and agriculture, and how to attract and resettle them. That involved critical identification of the diets of key birds. In those years, she and her husband also developed a method for ringing nesting swans (attaching those little identifier tags to a bird’s leg).

In the 1960s, Ardamatskaya participated in mass ringing of nesting birds on the islands, conducting bird counts from the air in winter. She also studied bird parasites and disease. She gained her PhD from the Ukrainian Institute of Zoology in 1963, for studying the ecology of ducks in the region.

In 1975, Ardamatskaya discovered the nesting places of the sea-duck, the Common eider, and began studying their biology, behavior, and migration. She developed ways to preserve their presence in the Reserve. She then began to focus on the black-headed Mediterranean gull, and achieved an increase in their population and extension of their habitat. She became a leading expert in the European Working Group on the species, and was nicknamed the mother of the Mediterranean gull.

In her years of scientific work and environmentalist advocacy, the bird populations increased, and so did the size of the Reserve. It grew into the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, part of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, in 1973. As well as hundreds of scientific publications, she wrote articles and books for the general public, and invested a lot of time in environmental education of children, organizing excursions and field schools for children. She is one of the founders of the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds in 1994, and was its first president, remaining honorary president for the rest of her life.

Ardamatskaya increased public awareness of the importance of the protection of birds, and she was one of the authors of the book of Ukrainian rare and endangered species, called “the red book“. She died in 2011.

In 2022, the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, now a haven for more than 120,000 birds during winter and endangered species including the Black Sea bottlenosed dolphin, was invaded by Russian troops in the battle for Kherson. There have been fires large enough to be seen from space. The extent of environmental loss is unknown.

Cover of the Red Book
“The red book” of Ukrainian rare and endangered species (via Wikimedia)

Sources: English and Ukrainian Wikipedia articles on her and the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, tributes from colleagues after her death, New York Times article on the impact of the 2022 Russian war on the Reserve. There is a copyrighted photo of her here.

Wikipedia notes: Medium-length article in English, shorter in Ukrainian, 2 other languages.

Motriya Vasylivna Bratijchuk (1927-2001, aged 73) – Astrophysicist

While a PhD student, Bratijchuk developed methods to calculate the orbit of artificial satellites, and was the first person to spot Sputnik in orbit in 1957. She was the founder and longtime head of the space research laboratory at Uzhhorod University. A minor planet is named in her honor.
Motrya V. Bratijchuk (via Wikimedia)

Motrya V. Bratijchuk was born in 1927 in a rural community in Verba, northwest Ukraine, when it was a Polish territory, ending when the Russian forces arrived in 1939. As a child, she loved stargazing, and her parents would often discuss the moon, the sun, and stars.

Her parents were also Ukrainian nationalists. Because her father owned enough land to be a target of the policy of “dekulakization” (being sent to a gulag – Russian forced labor camp – or worse), he tried to flee to the West across the border. He was arrested there, and sent to a Siberian gulag where he died. In 1966, Bratijchuk traveled to Siberia, hoping to locate his grave, but could not find one. (She organized a student club when she returned, but the university shut it down on political grounds.)

In 1947, Bratijchuk passed the entrance exam for the University of Kyiv, and studied physics. She finished her first post-graduate studies in astrophysics in 1956, and became a lecturer at Uzhhorod University in western Ukraine. She pioneered observing artificial satellites while she was a PhD student, tasked with finding a way to observe the first satellite in 1957 (Sputnik 1). She trained 12 students, and used a stopwatch to help her calculate when the satellite could be expected to pass a star. They were the first people to spot it.

Bratijchuk continued to develop methods for recognizing and calculating the orbit of artificial bodies in space. She became the head of the observation station, and gained her PhD in 1959. In 1969, it became a space research laboratory for artificial satellites, with Bratijchuk as its founding head – a position she held for the rest of her career (another 44 years). She was made a full professor in 1991. In her last interview, she spoke lovingly and poetically about the beauty of the sky at night, especially about a 1976 visit to the observatory in the North Caucasus, and watching what sounds like the northern lights.

A minor planet is named in her honor, 3372 Bratijchuk, which orbits between Mars and Jupiter. It was identified from a Crimean laboratory that used her method for calculating the orbit of a new body in space. She is reported to have said that when she died, her soul would be on small planet number 3372.

Sources: Ukrainian Wikipedia, her birthplace’s website, an article on Uzhhorod University’s website, and her last interview. ch laboratory, including the memorial plaque to Bratijchuk, here. And there’s a photo of her in the laboratory, with her last interview, and a photo of her when she was elderly in her entry at the Encyclopedia of Modern Ukraine.

Wikipedia notes: Medium-length article in Ukrainian, only language.

Nina Opanasivna Virchenko (1930 – living in Kyiv, 91 years old) – Mathematician

Nina O. Virchenko was only 17 when she was arrested for distributing leaflets about Ukrainian independence at the University of Kyiv in 1948. She spent 6 years as a political prisoner in a gulag, doing forced logging and rock quarrying. She became a mathematics professor, and outspoken advocate for the release of political prisoners and their welfare. In February 2022, her grandson told a newspaper that she was not going to leave Kyiv.

Nina O. Virchenko was born in 1930 in Zavadivka, a village in central Ukraine. In 1937, the family moved to Chervon, a town south-west of Kyiv. Nina’s mother was a midwife, and her father had been an officer in the Ukrainian People’s Army, the forces of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917-1921).

By the time Virchenko was a teenager, she knew what she wanted to be. She gave herself a pseudoynm: Ужма (UZHMA), an acronym for Ukrainian Woman Mathematician Astronomer. In 1947, when she was 16, she and her father traveled to Moscow for her to take the entrance exams at Moscow University. She passed, but her parents didn’t want her studying so far from home so young. So her father used her test results to get her admitted to the University of Kyiv.

Virchenko loved being a university student, immersing herself in mathematics, and the cultural life of Kyiv. She joined an aerodynamics group, too, and did a dozen parachute jumps. She also got involved in the movement for Ukrainian independence, with the kind of student activism that’s seen as harmless in other places and times – circulating hand-written leaflets. For this, though, the 17-year-old Virchenko was denounced to the secret police, along with a group of teachers and other students. In June, she was imprisoned in Lukyanivska in Kyiv, and in December she was on her way to a gulag (forced labor camp for political prisoners) in Eastern Siberia. Sentenced to 10 years, she was amnestied at the beginning of 1954 because of having been under-age when convicted.

The gulag was brutal. Prisoners had no names – just numbers – and no access to radio, newspapers, or even paper to write on. You can see footage of what it was like in a documentary about Virchenko – you don’t need to be able to understand Ukrainian to see how punishing the work of logging and rock quarrying was. Virchenko composed poetry that she shared orally. In one that she recalled, she speaks of her love for Ukraine, and willingness to die for her country if needed, as many had before, were doing then, and are doing again now. She also taught other prisoners mathematics, using a stick to draw in sand in summer, and snow in winter.

When she was released, she returned to Kyiv but wasn’t allowed to re-enter university until 1956. She started post-graduate studies, but it wasn’t until the political thaw of Perestroika that she was allowed to defend her dissertation (in 1988). The subject was dual (triple) integrations. She had been an assistant professor since 1965, first at the University of Kyiv, and from 1974 at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. Virchenko was promoted to full professor in 1990.

Virchenko married a fellow former political prisoner in 1964, the writer and translator Rostyslav Dotsenko (1931-2012). They had two daughters, Maria and Elena. Both Virchenko and her husband found themselves under secret police surveillance again. They both continued networking with, and supporting, political prisoners. Virchenko was an outspoken advocate for the freedom, rights, and welfare of political prisoners, for example, as co-signatory of an appeal to the Dutch people to vote in favor of an EU agreement on Ukraine in 2016. She led research as the chair of the science council of the All-Ukrainian Association for Political Prisoners and Victims of Repression.

She also worked for years to study and promote the work of repressed Ukrainian mathematician, Mikhail Kravchuk, who died in a gulag. (He already made an appearance in Part 1 of this series, as the doctoral supervisor of the first Ukrainian woman awarded a PhD in the mathematical and physical sciences, Claudia Latysheva.) She wrote articles and books about him, as well as other issues in the history of mathematics, alongside hundreds of other publications. Virchenko wrote books for the general public too, including one on mathematical aphorisms and quotes that was translated into Russian and Japanese. You can see her mathematical publications via Math-Net.Ru. Her studies included special functions, integral equations, and partial differential equations. And she wrote a personal memoir, with a title that translates to, Grains From the Roads of My Life.

The day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Marjan Pokhlyy, a 28-year-old student in Scotland told a local newspaper of his fear for Virchenko: she’s his grandmother. She’d had Covid recently, he said: “My gran’s 91. She doesn’t want to go abroad and it would be very difficult to move her at her age. There has been advice given to her, like the nearest bomb shelters. I’m very scared for her well-being. I have called her and she is well…” I’m grateful to Marjan for getting in touch to let me know she’s fine in January 2023, and staying outside Kyiv.

Nina O. Virchenko on Ukraine Independence Day 2014 (via Wikimedia)

Sources: Her Ukrainian Wikipedia article, and the sources listed in her English Wikipedia article, which I created while working on this series of posts.

Wikipedia notes: Medium-length article in English, similar length (shorter on life, more on publications) in Ukrainian, no other languages.

Valentina Mikhailovna Borok (1931-2004, aged 72) – Mathematician

Valentina M. Borok was Ukraine’s leading woman mathematician in the 1970s and 1980s, founding a school on general theory of partial differential equations. She became a full professor of mathematics in 1970, and both her children also became professors of mathematics. She was one of the small minority of Jewish Ukrainians to survive the German occupation, and she provided intensive support to Jewish students excluded from post-graduate mathematical research.

Valentina M. Borok was born in 1931 in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine (then in the USSR) in a Jewish family. Her father, Mikhail, was a chemist with a PhD, and her mother was prominent economist, Bella Sigal. Her father’s family can trace lineage back to Vilna Gaon, a leading Jewish scholar in Lithuania in the 18th century. Her mother had begun post-graduate studies, but was recruited to work in the government. When Valentina was young, she held a high-ranking position in the ministry of economics, so they had a relatively privileged life.

However, Sigal was concerned about the political situation for Jews in the late 1930s. She resigned in 1937, and took a low profile position to avoid being a target. It’s thought this may have saved the family when Germany invaded Ukraine in 1941. It’s estimated that only 17,000 survived of Ukraine’s some 870,000-strong Jewish community – the Borok family among them.

In 1949, Borok started studying mathematics at the University of Kyiv. Her future husband, Yakov Zhitomirskii, was a fellow mathematics student. Her undergraduate thesis on distribution theory and linear partial differential equations was so excellent, it was published in a leading Moscow journal and selected in 1957 for translation in an American Mathematical Society volume. She graduated in 1954, and then followed her mentor to Moscow University for post-graduate work. Her PhD in 1957 was gained for a dissertation on linear partial differential equations with constant coefficients.

Borok’s papers in the late 1950s include a range of inverse theorems that enabled characterization of partial differential equations, and developed new formulas related to that type of equation. Her first child was born in Kyiv in 1958, and named after her father.

In 1960, she took a position at Kharkiv State University, where she spent the rest of her career, becoming the most prominent female mathematician in Ukraine in the ’70s and ’80s. Her second child, a daughter they named Svetlana, was born there in 1966.

In the 1960s, she worked mostly jointly with her husband, co-authoring influential publications. From the late ’60s, she “began a series of papers that lay the foundations for the theory of local and non-local boundary value problems in infinite layers for systems of partial differential equations” (more on her work here).

In 1970, Borok became a full professor, and she chaired the analysis department from 1983. In the ’70s, she founded a school on general theory of partial differential equations. She had many successful students, but some of her best were not allowed to enrol in post-graduate studies because they were Jewish. Borok encouraged and supported their ongoing research alongside their full-time work, and then worked to find them supervisors at other universities in Soviet states to defend their dissertations. In the 1980s, her daughter recounts the barrier of Jewish quotes for getting into Moscow University, too.

Both of Borok and Zhitomirskii’s children became professors of mathematics, although the younger said they encouraged her to pursue other fields because 4 mathematicians in a family was too much! In 1991, their daughter, Svetlana Yakovlevna Jitomirskaya, moved to the US, where she is now professor of mathematics at the University of California, Irvine. In 1992, their son Mikhail moved to Israel.

In 1994, Borok became seriously ill suddenly, and needed medical treatment not available in Ukraine. She and her husband moved to Haifa in Israel, where she remained very involved with her grandchildren. Borok died in 2004.

Sources: English, Ukrainian, and Russian Wikipedia articles, article on St Andrews Maths history website, her son’s academic CV, her daughter’s St Andrews Maths History article and Wikipedia article. There’s a photo of her teaching later in life here. You can find her publications here.

Wikipedia notes: Medium-length article in English, stub in Ukrainian, 7 other languages.

Elizaveta (Elizabeth) Lvivna Kordyum (1932, living in Kyiv, 89 years)Space and gravitational biologist

Elizaveta L. Kordyum is a second-generation woman research botanist, and a cell biologist. In the 1970s, she began to specialize in space biology, participating in 48 experiments of the impact of space on growing plants – on Russian spacecraft and the Space Shuttle Columbia. Kordyum headed the department of cytology at the Institute of Botany.

Elizaveta (Elizabeth) L. Kordyum was born in Kyiv, in 1932, when it was part of the USSR. Her mother was botanist, Olena D. Visyulina (1898-1972) – she would take her daughter with her on field trips when she was a child. Her father, Lev A. Gordon, was a pedagogical scientist (study of teaching and learning).

The family evacuated when Germany invaded Ukraine in 1941, moving east to Mozdok. Her mother became seriously ill with typhus, and Elizaveta wasn’t well either. The German army was advancing closer to Mozdok, so they decided to move further east to Tashkent, where her father had family. (That’s now Uzbekistan.) It was an arduous journey of 3 weeks. At one point they waited at a railway station for 3 days.

Her parents both got work in Tashkent, but her father was unhappy. He traveled back to where his research institute had re-located in October 1942, but returned in February in bad condition – it’s not clear why. He died in 1943. The Institutes of the Academy of Sciences were able to return to Kyiv after the German occupation was ended. Kordyum’s mother returned to Kyiv with her daughter in 1944. Elizaveta’s grandparents and uncles also returned to Kyiv later, and they all lived together. She told an interviewer that the war ended the childhood of her generation.

Elizaveta finished high school in 1950, and graduated from the department of biology and soil science at the University of Kyiv in 1955. She married one of her classmates in 1954, medical geneticist Vitaliy A. Kordyum (born in 1931, now 90 years old). His father was an actor and film director, and he became a professor and head of a department at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics.

Kordyum didn’t go straight to graduate school, as it was complicated with her mother working at that Institute of Botany. So she worked as a junior researcher at the university’s Botanical Garden, working on tending roses and a thesis on the embryology of buttercups. She joined the Institute after she was awarded her first postgraduate degree in 1959. Around then the second of their children was born (Maria – their first child was Alexander). Kordyum gained her PhD in 1968, with a dissertation on embryology and cytology of Apiaceae – the plant family that includes carrots, celery, coriander, and parsley. She became head of the department of cytology in 1976 and deputy director for scientific affairs. In 1999, Kordyum was acting director of the Institute of Botany. In 2004, she became vice-president of the Ukrainian Society of Cell Biology.

In the early 1970s, her husband invited her to participate in space experiments. She went on to study the effects of space, especially of microgravity (weightlessness), on plant cells, and how they respond and adapt to those stresses. She participated in 48 plant experiments that went into space, on biosatellites, on Salyut, Soyuz, and Mir spacecraft, and a joint NASA-Ukraine experiment on the Space Shuttle Columbia. That last group of experiments included growing soybeans, rapeseed, and moss to analyze the impact of space on them. The central goal of being able to grow plants in space is to enable very longterm space missions, like getting to Mars.

I’ve seen no news on whether the Kordyums stayed in Kyiv after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began.

Ukrainian cosmonaut, Leonid Kadenyuk, working on Kordyum & co’s experiment to grow food in space, on the Space Shuttle Columbia, 1997 (NASA via Flickr)

Sources: Ukrainian and German Wikipedia articles, journal interview (with photos of Kordyum, from young to old), 2018 news article, Prabook, scientific report on the NASA Collaborative Ukrainian Experiment.

Wikipedia notes: No article in English, medium-length in Ukrainian, 2 other languages. Her botanist mother has one in Ukrainian and 3 other languages, but not English.


Observers of a 1914 total solar eclipse
1914 eclipse expedition (Wikimedia)

More in this series:

  • Part 1 (Maria V. Pavlova, Sofia Okunevska-Morachevska, Valentyna V. Radzymovska, Praskovja G. Parchomenko, Claudia Y. Latysheva)
  • Part 2 (Mariya Y. Zerova, Antonina F. Prikhot’ko, Dariya N. Dobroczayeva, Kateryna L. Yushchenko, Anna Z. Osychnyuk)

Science For Ukraine is a forum for finding, sharing, and offering opportunities and assistance for Ukrainian scientists affected by Russia’s war on the country. (On Twitter.)

Carathe Council for At-Risk Academics – is also active in supporting Ukrainians needing help, as well as Russian academics at risk because of their opposition to the war. Cara continues to support academics at risk globally. (On Twitter.)

Correction on May 25: I am grateful to Yakov Zhitomirskii for letting me know of mistakes about Valentina Borok’s family in the original of this post – I regret the errors.

Correction and update on January 13, 2023: I’m grateful to Marjan Pokhlyy, Nina Virchenko’s grandson for getting in touch, to let me know she’s ok. Marjan mentioned her memoir, which I looked up and added to both the Wikipedia page and this post. He pointed out an error, too – the location of the village she was born in was incorrect (there’s more than one of that name in Ukraine).

NASA photo from Flickr on the Space Shuttle is CC BY-NC 2.0.

    1. Actually Ukrainian, and to erase that at this particular time is wildly inappropriate, to say the very least. Calling them “Soviet” defines them by a supranational political term that washes out where they lived – and it’s a politics that one even ended up in a gulag because she rejected it so profoundly. Even when it was “Soviet”, it was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – and its national anthem referred only to Ukraine.

  1. Dear Hilda,

    thank you very much for the very touching piece on Valentina Borok! I have but only two small corrections. Her first child was named after HER father (Michail Borok), not his father. Also you state that her husband Yakov Zhitomirskii died in 2003. However this is an exaggeration, in fact I happen to be alive.


    Yakov Zhitomirskii

    1. Dear Yakov – I’m so happy to hear that you are alive – and so sorry for the errors. I have corrected them. Thank you so much for letting me know! My very best wishes to you and your family.

    2. Thank you very much and thank you again for the article about Valentina!

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