A Genius Obscured by a Great Man
Seventy-seven years ago last week, the Nobel Prize committee, in its traditionally elaborate gathering, presented Albert Einstein with its prize for physics. In his acceptance speech, Einstein completely ignored Mileva Einstein-Maric, his first wife. He ignored her, even though she made him comfortable, cooked his meals, washed his clothes, took in lodgers to cover the bills and sat up late many a night working with him, checking the mathematics of his theories. There was no attempt to reverse their roles--indeed, it was never an option.
A contrast to Maric’s life is remarkably apparent in the results of the second half of this century’s grinding fight for equal rights for women. Today, examples of women shouldering the same professional weight as their male partners are abundant and firmly woven into the U.S. way of life. A forceful example is Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for the Senate. Now she is trying to follow her own convictions, and it will be her husband’s role to support her. Tipper Gore, Ernestine Schlant, Elizabeth Dole, all wives of enormously engaged men, have their own notable careers. If they had lived in Switzerland, where Maric had lived, they would not have been granted the right to vote until 1971, 23 years after Maric died.
Maric was born with two disabilities: a severely displaced hip that made one leg almost three inches shorter than the other and a genius intellect. Although she was attractive, she never expected to marry because of these “problems,” especially in Balkan society. By the time Maric finished secondary school in 1894, the Austro-Hungarian empire was still standing firm in its decision not to allow female students to attend university.
Since she was too intelligent for the provinces and had outgrown all the schools in her area, Maric left for Switzerland. She first attended a preparatory school in Zurich, then briefly flirted with medicine at Zurich University. But she soon returned to her true academic loves: mathematics and physics. She breezed through the Matura, the university-entrance exam, and was accepted as a student at the Polytechnikum on her first try; it took Einstein two. Maric was one of only 20 women, in all the Prussian universities combined, studying the natural sciences and mathematics; she was the only woman in the physics and mathematics department at the Polytechnikum.
Maric and Einstein circled each other for more than a year, Einstein persistently, Maric hesitant. By the spring of 1898, they had fallen deeply in love. It was at this juncture that Maric’s chances for a career were devastated. She fell so completely, so utterly in love with Einstein that her entire life went in a direction from which she would never return. By 1901, although still not married to him, she became pregnant with their first child, Lieserl. The burden of being pregnant out of wedlock; the physical problems related to her displaced hip and acute morning sickness; the vehement determination of Einstein’s parents not to give their permission for him to marry; and her parents’ shame and dishonor--all contributed to Maric missing matriculation by a mere point.
As did most women of her time, Maric transferred her fierce academic ambitions onto her husband. But she continued to work with him on his remarkable theories. They were an ideal team: Einstein would sail in his imagination, navigating through inspired concepts, while Maric had the gift to fathom the most pragmatic moment at which to stop and consider the idea more thoroughly. He often boasted of their working together. “And, as for science,” he wrote in one of his many letters about their collective work, “I have an extremely lucky idea, which will make it possible to apply our theory of molecular forces to gases as well. I can hardly await the outcome of the investigation. If it leads to something, we will know almost as much as about the molecular forces as about the gravitational forces.” Then he proclaimed how “happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on the relative motion to a victorious conclusion!” The work he referred to in this 1901 letter became, in 1905, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.
Historians debate the extent of Maric’s participation in Einstein’s scientific work. Abram F. Joffe, a Russian scientist, wrote in “Meetings with Physicists: My Reminiscences of Foreign Physicists,” that three original manuscripts, including the Special Theory of Relativity, were signed “Einstein-Marity” (Marity being the Hungarian spelling for Maric). Many years later, Maric’s and Einstein’s son, Hans Albert, told Peter Michelmore, an Einstein biographer, that Maric helped Einstein “solve certain mathematical problems.”
But Maric’s university friend, Milana Bota Stefanovic, in an interview with a Belgrade journalist in 1929, said, “[Maric] would be the most qualified to give information about the genesis of his [Einstein’s] theory, since she herself participated in its creation. Five or six years ago, [Maric] was telling me about that, but with pain. Maybe it is hard for her to recollect those precious moments, maybe she does not wish to kill the great voice of her former husband.”
Einstein, we now know, had no patience and very little respect for women. The only female scientist to whom he afforded a modicum of respect was Marie Curie, and even that compliment had a touch of nastiness. “She has a sparkling intelligence,” he wrote a friend, “but despite her passionate nature, she is not attractive enough to represent a danger to anyone.”
On that cold and windy day in Stockholm when Einstein, already considered the icon of the century, stepped up to the podium to receive his Nobel Prize, he refused to utter a particle of praise or acknowledgment for his original colleague, Maric. Perhaps it was Einstein’s guilt--perhaps it was his unspoken acknowledgment--but after receiving the 121,574 krones from the academy, he turned around and gave it to Maric.
With many social issues unresolved, and with all the injustices toward women that persist, there still needs to be heard an acknowledgment for the men who have accepted and integrated the reality of working side by side with their partners. They have come a long way since Einstein told his physician, “Marriage was surely invented by an unimaginative pig.” *
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.