She was the lover of a man whose name is synonymous with genius. Eclipsed by her husband’s fame, Mileva Einstein has nevertheless escorted and helped him through his journey beyond the hard sciences…
Mileva Marić was not made for the limelight. Born in Austria-Hungary during the devastated years of the late-19th century, she was a shy, taciturn young woman. Aside from her ordinary looks, she inherited a lame foot which earned her the teasing of the schoolyard. Marginalized, Mileva locked herself into some dignified, Slavic silence, and offset the others’ indifference by spectacular intelligence. “She is a rare phenomenon,” one of her teachers in Ruma said. Her school reports confirmed it, so much so that, although universities back in the days were mostly men’s hunting grounds, she managed to enter the Zürich Federal Polytechnic School. She was to be, throughout the five years of her Swiss education, the only girl in her class…
As easy as one-two-three
Despite being four years younger than her, the teenage Albert Einstein soon broke the ice, and their bond grew stronger over time. They shared a passion for mathematics and the mysteries that nature locked up into equations. The young couple immediately started a fruitful correspondence detailing their research. “I look forward to resume our new common work,” Albert wrote in September 1900. They soon published an article on capillarity, but it only included Einstein’s name, for fear that a woman’s patronym might discredit it. But the mutual collaboration kept on. “How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a victorious conclusion” Einstein wrote in March 1901.
A few months later, everything fell apart. Mileva did not pass her final exams, while Albert dazzled his teachers. Plus, the young woman was pregnant – and unmarried. Einstein’s parents strongly opposed their union, his mother venomously stating that “She cannot enter a respectable family”. Especially since she was neither Jewish nor German… Due to come back to Novi Sad in January 1902, Mileva secretly gave birth to a girl, Liserl. (Her existence remains shrouded in mystery, but it is believed she was given to adoption services—unless she died of scarlet fever at a very young age.)
At sixes and sevens
January 1903: eventually Albert Einstein secured a position at the Patent Office of Bern—as well as his parents’ wedding benediction. But the marital bliss of the newlyweds rapidly faded, for Albert grew more and more distant, working six days a week over complicated paperwork. Mileva herself, hidden away at the Einsteins’ flat, embraced the role of the lady of the house. A second child, Hans Albert, was born in 1904. Apparently, the Einsteins kept on devising new theories and equations. Mileva’s brother, who regularly paid them visit, noticed how the couple pored over physics theorems at dusk, bathed in the dark glow of a kerosene lamp…
In 1905, Albert Einstein became the star physician associated with the revolutionary theory of relativity. Instant fame was to keep him away from his wife for longer periods, since he was regularly invited to faraway conferences and symposiums. “With all this fame, he has little time for his wife,” Mileva to a friend in 1909. “What is there to say, with notoriety, one gets the pearl, the other the shell.” Indeed, while the light shone down upon Albert, Mileva dissolved into the background. Eventually, in 1912, Albert started a relationship with his cousin Elsa, for whom he settled in Berlin two years later. Mileva remained behind in Zurich with their kids, spending all her savings in the treatment of their youngest son, Eduard, locked up in a sanatorium because of mental health issues. Suffering from depression, she died in 1948.
We will probably never know which role Mileva played in the spawning of her husband’s genius. She may just have taken notes, double-checked his algebra or lent him an ear where his theories could grow; historians have no definite answer on that matter. Once thing is certain, however: she gave up part of her brilliance for him, and her journey through the male-only fields of hard sciences may have inspired others to follow suit. Let’s forget about Mileva Einstein and, instead, remember Mileva Marić.
- Allen Esterson, David C. Cassidy, Einstein’s Wife. The Real Story of Mileva Einstein-Marić, London: MIT Press, 2019.
- Mileva Marić, In Albert’s Shadow: The Life and Letters of Mileva Maric, Einstein’s First Wife, John Hopkins University Press, 2003.
- Dinitia Smith, “Dark Side of Einstein Emerges in His Letters”, The New York Times, November 6, 1996.
- Pauline Gagnon, “The Forgotten Life of Einstein’s First Wife”, Scientific American, December 19, 2016.
- Tania Kahn, “Mileva Einstein, l’inconnue de l’équation”, Libération [FRENCH], July 23, 2019.
- Pierre Ropert, “Mileva Einstein, l’oubliée de la relativité ?”, France Culture [FRENCH], August 17, 2018.