Einstein-Maríc, Mileva (1875–1948)

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Einstein-Maríc, Mileva (1875–1948)

Serbian mathematician and first wife of Albert Einstein who did the computations for his theory of relativity and other important papers, but whose contributions went unmentioned after their collaboration ceased, while his scientific contributions never again achieved the level reached during the marriage. Name variations: Einstein-Maric. Born Mileva Maríc in Titel, in the Serbian part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, on December 19, 1875; died in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 4, 1948; daughter of a civil servant in the Hungarian army and a mother who came from a wealthy family; early evidence of brilliance in mathematics led to her admittance, as the sole female student, to a boys' gymnasium in Zagreb; attended university in Switzerland; married Albert Einstein, on January 6, 1903; children: a daughter, Liserele or Lieserl (b. 1902), whose fate is unknown, and two sons, Hans Albert (b. May 14, 1904) and Eduard (b. July 28, 1910).

Went to Zurich to attend university (c. 1894); met Albert Einstein (1896); left her studies at the Polytechnic (1901); provided the mathematical calculations for the paper that initially bore her name as coauthor, that would later win her husband the Nobel Prize in physics (1905); remained in Zurich after Albert moved to Berlin (1914); received the money awarded with the Nobel Prize (1922).

The famous equation E=mc2 in which Albert Einstein demonstrated that mass and energy are equivalent is one of the major scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, and the theory of relativity which he derived from it made the name Einstein a household word. But few are aware of the contributions made to these great works by the physicist's first wife, the mathematician Mileva Einstein-Maríc. Given how thoroughly she has been forgotten, it is interesting to compare the careers of this couple with their contemporaries, Pierre and Marie Curie , central figures in 20th-century science, who also worked together. In 1905, the Curies shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry, but Pierre was always one to advertise his wife's intellectual gifts, and, after his tragic early death, the further research done by her left no doubt as to the power of Marie Curie's own achievements. In the case of Mileva Einstein-Maríc, the situation remains more cloudy. For one thing, Albert Einstein showed no inclination after his early years to share any credit with his first wife, although there are many indications that Mileva Einstein-Maríc made the calculations that were a deeply significant contribution to the formulation of his theory of relativity; in particular, mathematics were known not to be Einstein's strong suit.

Everything I have done and accomplished I owe to Mileva. She is my genial source of inspiration, my protective angel against the sins in life and even more so in science. Without her I would not have started my work let alone finished it.

—Albert Einstein in a letter to Mileva Einstein-Maríc's father

Mileva Maríc was born on December 19, 1875, in Titel, in the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire, the daughter of Serbs who were familiar with German language and culture. Mileva's father was a civil servant in the Hungarian army, and her mother came from a wealthy family. Recognized early by her parents as extremely gifted, Mileva attended several secondary schools before gaining admittance as a private student to an all-male gymnasium, or high school, in Zagreb. Her mathematical abilities led to her study of physics, and at age 19 she went to Switzerland, one of the few countries that then allowed women to take university courses. After studying medicine for one term, she concentrated on mathematics and physics.

Up to this time in history, the sciences had consisted of an odd mix of professionals and dabblers and were far less exclusive than would later be the case. It was only when science began to surpass the humanities in prestige that they became male dominated. Women had long participated in science, but few chose it as a professional career.

Given the general attitude that women did not belong in higher education, women pioneers in any area of study faced special challenges because of their sex. Professors tended not to believe that female students seriously wanted to study for their doctorates, for instance, and few thought about taking them on as assistants. In pursuing mathematics and physics, Maríc had no female models.

Although Switzerland was ahead of other European countries in allowing women to pursue a university education, a woman who entered one of these institutions found her career opportunities far from assured. Barely a generation ahead of Mileva, Emilie Kempin-Spyri became the first woman in the world to achieve a doctorate in jurisprudence at the University of Zurich in 1887, but the practice of law was contingent on being a voting citizen, and women were not allowed to vote. Despite a move to the United States where she founded the First Woman Law College, Kempin-Spyri's career became a tragic example of thwarted circumstances leading eventually to bankruptcy and a breakdown.

In 1896, one of Mileva Maríc's classmates at the Polytechnic in Zurich was Albert Einstein, who came there after studying in Germany and Italy. Albert's attendance at lectures was sporadic as he preferred to spend his time in the physics laboratory, and Mileva appeared to be the more dedicated and determined student. In July 1900, Albert received a teaching degree and began giving private lessons and working at various local schools to support himself. By this time, he and Mileva were deeply involved, and she began to lobby their professor to offer Albert an assistantship. Whether she gave any thought to asking for this position for herself is not known. What is known is that Professor Weber did not consider Albert—who had received the lowest marks on his final of any degree candidate—a particularly promising student. In August 1901, Weber's indifference to Albert may have played a role in Mileva's decision to stop her research and leave the Polytechnic. The couple had agreed that they would marry as soon as one of them obtained a job, and from this point forward Albert's needs came first in Mileva's life. In January 1902, she gave birth to a daughter, Liserele. Nothing is known of the child's fate, although she may have been given up for adoption. (Michele Zackheim argues that she was born severely retarded and died of scarlet fever at 21 months.) Mileva and Albert finally married a year later, on January 6, 1903.

Einstein-Maríc remained part of a group called Academic Olympia—composed of her husband, the Habicht brothers, Maurice Solovine, and Michele Angelo Besso—which met regularly to study and read philosophical and scientific works. During this time, Einstein-Maríc worked with Paul Habicht on the construction of a machine to measure small electrical currents, and Albert did the work of describing the apparatus for a patent application. When the patent was approved, the apparatus appeared under the name Einstein-Habicht (Patent No. 35693). When one of the Habicht brothers asked Mileva why her name was not included, she replied with a pun on the name Einstein, "What for, we are both only one stone." By this decision, however, the record of her contribution to the project was lost, a fact that was made worse when her husband published two more articles related to the project, further appropriating work that had been his wife's by using his name only.

One reason Albert did not always stress his wife's academic abilities was perhaps that he valued other traits. Writing to his friend Michele Besso, about his recent marriage, he said, "I am now a married man, and my wife and I lead an extremely agreeable life. She occupies herself perfectly with everything, cooks very well, and is always cheerful." To be fair to the physicist, it should be remembered that domesticity was considered to be a female's highest field of endeavor during this period, and the description would have been considered a high compliment.

On May 14, 1904, Einstein-Maríc gave birth to the couple's first son, Hans Albert. Now wife and mother, she also continued to collaborate scientifically with Albert, who made no secret at the time of her assistance with his work, stating over and over, "My wife does my mathematics." Since mathematics is the language of science, those who "speak" the language of mathematics fluently are better understood by the scientific community than those who cannot, and Einstein's dislike of mathematics was well known. Hermann Minkowski, a former professor of Einstein's and a great mathematician, is said to have told Max Born after Einstein's theory of relativity was published, "This was a big surprise for me because Einstein was quite a lazybones and wasn't at all interested in mathematics." Notes Desanka Trbuhovic-Gjuric of Mileva:

In her work, she was not the co-creator of his ideas, something no one else could have been, but she did examine all his ideas, then discussed them with him and gave mathematical expression to his ideas about the extension of Planck's quantum theory and about the special theory of relativity.… Mileva Einstein-Maríc was the first person to tell Albert Einstein after the completion of his paper: this is a great, very great and beautiful work, whereupon he sent it to the journal Annalen der Physik in Leipzig.

In 1905, five articles by Albert Einstein appeared in the Leipzig Annalen der Physik. Two of them, including his dissertation, were written in Zurich. The other three, published in Vol. XVII of Annalen der Physik, were written with his wife while he was employed at the Bern patent office. For one of these papers, "Einen die Erzeugung und Verwandlung des Lichtes betreffenden heuristischen Gesichtspunkt," he would later receive the Nobel Prize. The theory of relativity was continued in another, "Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper." According to Abram F. Joffe, the famous Russian physicist who was a member of the editorial team for Annalen der Physik, the original manuscripts for these papers, as well as a third, were co-signed by Einstein-Maríc. Unfortunately, the original manuscripts may no longer exist. A reward of $11,500,000 was offered to the person who could present them to the Library of Congress, and the fate of the co-signed manuscripts was discussed in a New York Times article on February 15, 1944, but no trace of the papers has ever been found.

The extent of the contributions of Einstein-Maríc to her husband's work is suggested, if not verified, by what followed. Many have noted that the period in Switzerland was the most intellectually productive time of Einstein's life. After the age of 26, his work never reached the same level as his earlier research. His friend, David Reichenstein, notes: "It is strange how fruitful that short period of his life was. Not only his special theory of relativity but a lot of other basic papers bear the date 1905." One of Einstein's biographers, Leopold Infeld, echoes: "His most important scientific work he wrote as a little civil servant in the Patent Office in Bern." Finally, Peter Michelmore, who had a great deal of information directly from the famous physicist, states: "Mileva helped him solve certain mathematical problems. She was with him in Bern and helped him when he was having such a hard time with his theory of relativity." In 1905, Einstein-Maríc felt no hesitancy about her own contribution when she wrote to her father, saying, "A short while ago we finished a very important work which will make my husband world famous."

How was the record of Einstein-Maríc's contribution to the theory of relativity lost? There are several explanations. In the first place, when the single name of Einstein was used, her contribution was glossed over. How her name became deleted after appearing as co-author on some of the original papers is not known. What is obvious, however, is that Albert Einstein did not protest the deletion, and, as his career blossomed, he never discussed her contributions. In later years, the dissolution of their marriage may have been a factor. In 1922, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Einstein did seem to make a personal acknowledgement that he was in his first wife's debt, when he gave all the prize money to Mileva. This may also have been due to the fact that he had failed to pay child support for several years. In public, he once acknowledged at a congress, "Ever since the mathematicians have taken up my theory of relativity, I don't understand it myself."

In 1904, after the birth of their first son, Mileva asked her brother, who was also studying in Zurich, to help babysit so she could check her husband's computations. Following the publication of his earth-shaking paper in 1905, Albert became a professor at the University of Zurich and the family's income improved, but Mileva still took in student boarders to make ends meet. A mathematician from the University of Zagreb remembers Mileva doing her husband's mathematical problems past midnight, after a long day of household chores. Still she was happy because her husband was successful.

On July 28, 1910, the couple's life changed when they had a second son, Eduard, who was to be plagued by physical and emotional problems throughout his life. By 1911, when the family moved to Prague, the marriage was no longer happy. After their return to Zurich in 1912, Einstein-Maríc complained in a letter to her friend, Helene Kaufler , on March 17, 1913, that her husband no longer had time for her or the children.

In April 1914, Einstein accepted a position in Berlin as the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics and was made a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Mileva had no friends or family in Berlin and chose not to follow him. As the guns of August signalled the start of World War I, Albert advised her to stay in Switzerland with the children as it was a neutral country. By then, however, he had another reason for this advice; he had found another woman. Albert sent money only intermittently, and then not enough.

With the two children as her responsibility, lacking food and clothing, Mileva was forced to ask a friend for a loan. When Albert came to Zurich a year later, Einstein-Maríc knew that her husband had moved in with a cousin of his, Elsa (Einstein) . He gave no hint that he and Mileva had any future together.

The following years grew increasingly difficult. Because of the devaluation of German currency, Albert did not have the money to take care of his family. At age 19, Eduard became psychotic. Einstein-Maríc devoted herself to his care, knowing that his disease was probably inherited through Albert's mother. The illness was a tremendous financial burden; to meet expenses, she taught physics at a secondary school.

Albert Einstein eventually obtained a divorce in 1919 and married his cousin that same year; Elsa died in 1936. By the late 1920s, he had stopped referring to his first marriage, while Einstein-Maríc's troubles continued. Her brother, captured in Russia during World War I, never returned from military imprisonment; one sister became mentally ill and died, and the second died in 1938; her father, having survived three of his four children, is said to have died of heartbreak. Einstein-Maríc lived until August 4, 1948, when she died in a Zurich clinic, described by her biographer at that time as, "an impoverished old woman, pushed aside even by the clinic personnel."


Bernstein, Jeremy. "A Critic at Large: The Einstein-Besso Letters," in The New Yorker. Vol. 64, no. 2. February 27, 1989, pp. 86–92.

Highfield, Robert, and Paul Carter. The Private Lives of Albert Einstein. London: Faber & Faber, 1993.

Joffe, Abram F. Meetings with Physicists: My Reminiscences of Foreign Physicists. Moscow: State Publishing House of Physics and Mathematics Literature, 1960.

Renn, Jürgen, and Robert Schulmann. Albert Einstein/Mileva Maríc: The Love Letters. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Stachel, John, ed. The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein: The Early Years 1879–1907. Vol. I. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Sugimoto, Kenji. Albert Einstein: A Photographic Biography. Translated by Barbara Harshav. NY: Schocken Books, 1989.

Trbuhovic-Gjuric, Desanka. Im Schatten Albert Einsteins: Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Maríc. Bern, Switzerland: Paul Haupt, 1983.

Troemel-Ploetz, Senta. "Mileva Einstein-Maríc: The Woman Who Did Einstein's Mathematics," in Women's Study International Forum. Vol. 13, no. 5, 1990, pp. 415–432.

——. "Mileva Einstein-Maríc. The Woman Who Did Einstein's Mathematics," in Index on Censorship. Vol. 19, no. 9. October 1990, pp. 33–36.

White, Michael, and John Gribbin. Einstein—A Life in Science. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

suggested reading:

Gabor, Andrea. Einstein's Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth-Century Women. Penguin, 1996.

Zackheim, Michele. Einstein's Daughter: The Search for Lieserl. Riverhead Books, 1999.

John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia