In October of 1900, a young Serbian woman named Mileva Marić was at her family home in southern Hungary when a letter arrived from her lover—a former classmate at the Zurich Polytechnic named Albert Einstein, then at his home in Milan. He had been studying physical chemistry on his own.
“I’m very enthusiastic about the accomplishments in this field over the last 30 years,” he wrote. “You’ll enjoy it too when we go over it together.” He also looked forward to searching together in Zurich for data in support of a new theory involving molecular forces. If it yielded a new law of nature, he continued, “we’ll send the results to Wiedemann’s Annalen.”
Both soon returned to Zurich where Mileva also began research for her doctorate and prepared to retake the final exams for the diploma, the equivalent of an American master’s degree. She had failed on her first attempt in July. Albert admired her determination. “I’m so lucky to have found you,” he wrote in the October letter, “a creature who is my equal, and who is as strong and independent as I am! I feel alone with everyone else except you.”
Mileva and Albert had found each other four years earlier when they entered the program for math and physics teachers at the Polytechnic, today the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. They were the only physics students in the first-year program, and she was the only woman in their class cohort for the next four years.
Mileva’s path to the Polytechnic had been a difficult one: She was born in 1875 with a congenital hip defect that caused a life-long limp; moreover, it was a time when most European nations prohibited women from higher education, secondary schools were open only to boys and public school education for girls was over at age 14. Rather than spending the next few years helping at home, sewing and daydreaming of marriage, Mileva was determined to continue her education.
With her father’s help, Mileva enrolled in a boys’ high school in Zagreb that prepared students for the university and obtained special permission to enroll in physics, a subject otherwise reserved for boys. With universities closed to women, those who sought higher education–and had sufficient funds–usually traveled to either France or Switzerland, the two leading nations that did welcome women into higher education. Mileva headed to German-speaking Zurich, eventually determined to seek a career in physics.
But things did not go well from there. Albert’s parents strongly opposed her budding romance with their son. In 1901, Mileva became pregnant, and she gave birth the following January to a daughter named Lieserl who has vanished from history. She twice failed the diploma exams, cutting short her dreams of a career in physics.
Albert, too, had his problems. After he barely passed the diploma exams, his parents went bankrupt again, forcing him to live nearly hand to mouth with no job and no research position. In addition to likely anti-Semitism, his disregard for antiquated textbook physics and his disrespect for his professors had been repaid with poor grades and poor recommendations. “From all this you can see,’ Mileva wrote to a friend, “that the two of us make a very sorry couple.”
In December 1901, the sudden prospect of a job for Albert as a leave replacement for a teacher at a local high school prompted a joyful letter to his pregnant fiancée. They could finally marry. “When you’re my dear little wife,” he wrote on December 28, “we’ll diligently work on science together so we don’t become old philistines, right?” Mileva’s reply, if any, to Albert’s inquiry is now lost—as are most of her letters to him in this period.
The loss of Mileva’s letters, and the long periods during her marriage when there were no letters between her and Einstein, limits our insights into their lives, their partnership and the nature and extent of their scientific relationship and work together. What we do know is that Mileva and Albert married in 1903, that she gave birth to their two sons, and that she was the one who was there—the one who accompanied Einstein throughout the crucial 18 years of his rise from his early days as a physics student in 1896; through 1905, his “miracle year” of breakthrough papers on relativity theory, quantum theory and atomic theory, and to his early work on general relativity and ascent to the top of his profession in Berlin by 1914.
But for Mileva Einstein-Marić, her setbacks, her increasing isolation and his focus on his work adversely affected her and her marriage. The couple separated in 1914. Mileva returned with the boys to Zurich, where she lived the rest of her life. Shortly after their divorce five years later, Albert married his cousin, Elsa Einstein-Löwenthal.
As is often the case with male celebrities and scientists, little was known about Einstein’s wives, and there was little interest in learning about his first wife until the discovery in 1986 of Mileva’s correspondence with Albert, beginning when they were still students in Zurich. The letters had been in the family possession of the Einsteins’ older son, Hans Albert Einstein, who became an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Publication in 1987 of the first 51 of the Einstein-Marić letters, from 1897 to 1902, in the first volume of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein finally brought Mileva Marić to widespread public attention. It also publicized a previously little-known biography of Mileva by a Serbian science professor named Desanka Trbuhović-Gjurić.
The biography made a number of extraordinary claims about Mileva—asserting that she was a contributor to Einstein’s work and even an unrecognized coauthor of his major papers. In 1990, two speakers at a conference symposium on the young Einstein repeated and amplified those assertions. In view of the sad history of the neglect and even suppression of the contributions of women scientists to the work of their scientist husbands and male colleagues, these assertions about Mileva quickly gained acceptance among popular writers and the general public, despite their questionable foundations. But thorough research during the nearly 30 years since has brought forth a great deal of additional documentary evidence touching on many aspects of the lives and work and relationship of Mileva and Albert.
This includes many more volumes of the Collected Papers, currently through 1927, which provide more of the Einstein-Marić letters; Einstein’s correspondence with friends and colleagues regarding his family, work and papers; and letters and records pertaining to their marriage, separation and divorce, Einstein’s Nobel Prize money and other relevant matters. Among the documents now available beyond the Collected Papers are Mileva’s grade reports while at the Zagreb school and Polytechnic and her letters to a close friend and confidante during the important period from 1899 to 1932.
As with most historical work, no matter how many documents we have, important gaps in the record may remain. On the basis of the documents now available, it is possible for historians and others, including us, to evaluate the claims that have been made over the years about Mileva Marić and to establish her very real accomplishments—most notably her pioneering role in steadfastly pursuing an education in physics and mathematics at a time when opportunities for women in these fields were almost non-existent.
In the process, a well-documented, sympathetic and inspiring account is emerging of the real story of this remarkable person.