In the Shadow of Einstein

This post for Women’s History Month comes from Senja Andrejevic-Bullock, Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire.

The old adage that behind every great man is a great woman, seems to be true even for one of the greatest men of all times, Albert Einstein. Not many people know that Einstein was married twice but there is even less awareness of the fact that his first wife, a Serbian woman by the name of Mileva Maric, was a talented physicist and a mathematician herself.

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She was born in 1875 in a small town of Titel in Serbia (which, at the time, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire). Her family were not just affluent but progressive, as they recognised Mileva’s intelligence and strongly encouraged her education.

She was given a special permission to attend an otherwise all-boy school in Zagreb, Croatia, where she studied mathematics and physics and achieved top grades in an elite class; her teachers described her as ‘brilliant.’

For her further education Mileva was sent to Zurich, Switzerland, as this was the only German-speaking country where, as a woman, she could eventually be admitted to University. At the Swiss Federal Polytechnic (today the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the ETH), she met Einstein and soon their friendship turned into a romantic relationship. Einstein’s family did not approve of this, as Mileva came from a different culture and religion and was three years older than Einstein.

Academics such as Senta Tromel-Plotz believe that Mileva Maric was a highly gifted young woman at the time when she entered higher education in Switzerland, and yet the overall story of Mileva’s life is a tragic one. The couple married in 1903 and had two children (Mileva also gave birth to a daughter before they were married, but her exact fate is not known). Einstein became unfaithful to Mileva very soon into their marriage, embarking on an affair with his cousin Elsa not long after the birth of his second son. He eventually separated from Mileva in 1914 and then divorced her in 1919, marrying Elsa a couple of weeks later. Mileva was left in long-term financial difficulties and as a lone parent of two young boys, one of whom was severely ill. It is commonly believed that Einstein gave Mileva his Nobel Prize winnings as a gesture of generosity but, in fact, this was offered as a divorce settlement; Einstein did not keep to the terms of the original agreement, not giving Mileva the sum that had been agreed and exercising great control over her access to it. Mileva repeatedly had to ask Einstein for financial help, sometimes even for such small matters as a book for her older son. It was only at the very end of her life that she came into the possession of this money (through a practically unrelated source, as it came from the sale of a property) but by then it was too late for it to change her life for the better.

The degree to which Mileva was involved in Einstein’s work has been a subject of great controversy, explored in various books and researched through painstaking (and speculative) analysis of the letters between them, verbal accounts of family members and so forth. Some physicists today believe that Mileva was of a brilliant mind herself[1]; she had shown tremendous potential throughout her early education, and was the second woman ever to complete a full program of study at the Department IV A: Mathematics and Physics at the Zurich Polytechnikum, which to this day is an elite and male-dominated institution. In a letter dated 27 March 1901 Einstein wrote to Mileva how happy and proud he would be “when both of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a victorious end’ (27 March, 1901).

Some academics[2] have made much of the fact that Mileva failed her final examination at the ETH and thus did not finish with a diploma, as Einstein did. However, putting this into context, up until 1900, 90% of female students of universities and polytechnics left without completing their studies; the scientific and academic community were exceptionally patriarchal and openly discouraging of the efforts of their female students; women were pressurised to abandon their ambitions in pursuit and service of marriage and family. In light of this, Mileva Maric not obtaining her final diploma from this elite institution, which did not have a single female professor until 1985, does not seem like such a surprising fact.

What Mileva Maric could have become, professionally, had she not met Einstein – and, even more so, what Einstein would have achieved without her support on all levels – are unanswerable questions. What we do know is that she came from a wealthy, supportive and protective family, was very talented and ambitious, and still her story is not one of success or even ordinary happiness, whereas both life and history have been very kind to Einstein.

Although her life has now been the subject of several biographies and even a popular PBS program, the ultimate mystery of Mileva Maric remains and we will never know for certain the exact degree to which she helped to create the ultimate success of one of the greatest scientists in human history.

[1] For example, Evan Walker Harris, Dord Krstic

[2] For example, Galina Weinstein

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