In the first edition of our monthly articles: “Herstory” we look at Mileva Marić Einstein (reference). Like many other women, Mileva has been overlooked by history. Known to the public as Albert Einstein’s first wife, the celebrated physicist of the 20th century has been questioned as decades and archived letters have been discovered.
How much did Mileva truly contribute to his groundbreaking and Nobel prize-winning science?
No one knows for sure but their correspondence through letters, and conversations with family have led multiple historians to believe that enough evidence has been provided to signify that Mileva has collaborated. This collaboration between the two physicists took place between 1896 and 1914, until their eventual separation.
Mileva Marić Einstein-Background:
Mileva was admitted to high school in Siberia, during the last year in which girls were allowed to be enrolled. In 1892, her father obtained approval from the Minister of Education. She was allowed to attend physics lectures reserved only for boys at the time. She had completed her High School studies in 1894 and her family moved to Novi Sad. All her classmates had described Mileva to be brilliant but not sociable. She was known to be studious, working towards her academic goals.
Mileva Marić Einstein-Introduction to Albert Einstein:
Mileva had met Albert when they were both admitted to the physics-mathematics section of the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich in 1896 with only three other students. It was known that Albert and Mileva had become attached, working tirelessly together studying. While Albert had attended a few lectures, Mileva was disciplined and organized. Helping him channel his focus into his studies. She was the Watson to his Sherlock Holmes.
At the end of their studies in 1900, they had submitted their first scholarly article with collaborative efforts, except it had been under Albert’s name. With many letters showcasing evidence of it being a joint effort. It is important to note that according to their grades, Mileva had scored higher grades in every department. Except when it came to their oral examination. Professor Minkowski had given an 11 out of 15 to all his other male students except Mileva who received a 5 out of 12. Only Albert had received his degree.
It is clear with such a track record that the odds haven’t been in her favor even with her standing being higher than other students. Dord Kristić, a former physics professor spent years researching Mileva’s life suggesting that the times were against women, a publication collaborated with a woman would have had less of an impact.
Mileva Marić Einstein: What’s her destiny?
Mileva’s life was in disarray, with Albert unemployed and still not marrying her, and her future uncertain, she retook her oral exam. Her last attempt was in July 1901, and this time Professor Weber, whom Albert suspected of blocking his own career, failed her. Eventually, she married Albert, he would go off to work, and in the evenings, they would work together late into the night. Zarko Marić states that Mileva had confided in him the following:
“We finished an important scientific work that will make my husband known around the world”.
The connotation of ‘We’ is important to pinpoint, a joint effort that has been washed away by history. Furthermore, the first direct recognition that can be showcased is during Albert’s first unpaid lecture in Bern in 1909. Mileva was still aiding him, with 8 pages of his first lecture notes, all being handwritten notes from her. So is a letter that had been drafted from Albert to Max Planck asking for “his” expertise.
After Einstein’s affair, their marriage collapsed. Mileva had agreed to the divorce upon one condition if Albert were to win his Nobel Prize, she would receive the payout. Once she did, she bought two small apartment buildings and lived the rest of her life with a poor income. She had ended up giving private lessons and on the alimony Albert had sent, which was very irregular.
With such irregularities, Mileva had threatened to reveal the truth. In a letter sent by Albert in 1925 he wrote:
“You made me laugh when you started threatening me with your recollections. Nobody would ever pay attention to your sayings if the man you talked about had not accomplished something important. When someone is completely insignificant, there is nothing else to say to this person but to remain modest and silent. This is what I advise you to do.”
She had been the first to recognize his talent, and without her, he would have never truly succeeded. She had been locked into a state that was impossible to reverse, and she had agreed to it because her own happiness depended on his success.
Like so many other women in history, in this case, the saying “behind every man stands a woman” rings loud and clear. Yet, even with all these letters and personal testimonies we will never truly know her story, character, and scientific work. Yet, as another woman is excluded from herstory it’s important to give her the consideration she rightfully deserves.
For a similar article about women overlooked by history check out Lee Miller: https://executive-women.me/lee-miller-pioneering-photojournalist/