Mileva Marić: Einstein’s Wife
It must have been around 1990 that I first read newspaper reports about the claims that Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Marić, had made substantial contributions to his early achievements in physics. The contentions seem not to have made much headway in the UK, and, after two popular biographies of Einstein published in 1993 rejected the claims, I presumed the story had ended up in the backwaters of speculative notions on great scientific figures. How wrong I was.
Towards the end of 2005 my attention was drawn to the fact that the claims had gained a new lease of life through the production of an Australian documentary “Einstein’s Wife”, which was broadcast in the United States in 2003 by Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and is available on DVD. At the same time PBS produced a website devoted to the subject, complete with comprehensive lesson plans for teachers of high school students. It was at this point that I decided to investigate the claims more closely. It turned out that they are almost entirely based on erroneous contentions and dubious hearsay evidence. However, in a relatively short article it will only be possible to provide a limited account of the misconceptions that occur in abundance in the documentary and on the PBS website.
Before we examine the main evidence adduced by proponents of the notion that Marić collaborated on Einstein’s early papers it is important to dispose of some myths about his early life. It is widely believed that he was a mediocre school student. However, a letter from his mother to her sister in 1886, when he was 7, reports that he was “again top of the class”. During his years at the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich he performed well in science and mathematics, and his exceptional precociousness in these subjects has been recorded by Max Talmey, a medical student who visited the Einsteins each week from 1889 to early 1894. In 1894, when Einstein was 15, his father’s electrical engineering business was failing financially, and his parents emigrated to Milan, leaving him to complete his education at the Gymnasium. However, six months later on his own initiative he left the school, and went to live with his parents in Italy. In due course he began private study for the entrance examination for the prestigious Federal Swiss Polytechnic in Zurich in the autumn of 1895. Although he was some two years younger than the stipulated age of application to the Polytechnic he obtained high grades in mathematics and physics, but failed to achieve the required grades in some other subjects. On the advice of the Principal of the Polytechnic he spent a year at a high school in Aarau in Switzerland, and his school-leaving certificate from September 1896 records that he achieved maximum grades in algebra and geometry, high grades in physics and chemistry and some other subjects, and performed badly only in French. He received the highest grade average in his class.
This is the academic background to his commencing studying for a teaching diploma in physics and mathematics in the autumn of 1896, at 17 still below the normal age of entrance to Zurich Polytechnic. And it was here that he met Mileva Marić, who enrolled in the same course that autumn. Marić’s school record, especially in physics and mathematics, was excellent, but institutional obstacles to girls wishing to study science in the Austro-Hungarian Empire meant she had had to leave her Serbian homeland to eventually graduate from a Swiss girls’ high school in 1895. She initially considered a medical career, entering the Zurich University medical school in 1896, but completed only one semester before deciding to take an entrance exam which enabled her to start the physics and mathematics teaching diploma course at the Polytechnic in the autumn of that same year. Because of illness and difficulties in her path she was by then age 20.
At the Polytechnic Einstein and Marić were part of a small group the rest of whom were specialising in mathematics. Marić spent the first semester of her second year at the University of Heidelberg, and rejoined the course at Zurich Polytechnic for the next semester in the spring of 1898. In the 1898 intermediate diploma examinations (in which 3 of the 5 subjects were mathematical) Einstein achieved the highest overall average grade among the candidates. Because of missing the semester at the Polytechnic Marić postponed taking the intermediate exams until the following year, and her result placed her fifth out of the six candidates in their group. By this time Einstein was spending much of his time following up his own interests in physics, and in the final diploma exam in 1900 he came fourth out of five candidates, with an overall average grade of 4.91 (grades from 1 to 6). Marić fared less well, coming last with an overall average grade of 4.00. The examiners granted diplomas to the top four candidates, but not to Marić. She studied to repeat the exam the following year, but failed again without improving her grade, under the adverse circumstances that she was some 3 months pregnant at the time.
The Einstein/Marić correspondence
Before the publication of the first volume of the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein under the editorship of John Stachel in 1987, the existence of letters between Einstein and Mileva Marić from the early period of their relationship (1897-1903) was discovered, and they were included in that volume. (Characteristically, the report of their discovery given in the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary is, in the words of Robert Schulmann, the historian who was instrumental in their being brought to light, “totally and unequivocally false”.) The publication of the letters led to the first widely circulated claims that Marić made contributions to Einstein’s celebrated 1905 papers, or even that she co-authored them. These contentions were based on the fact that in a number of letters Einstein used the pronouns “our” and “we” in relation to physics topics he was working on during the period when they were students. Now there is no doubt that the couple worked together on subject matter pertaining to their diploma course, and to their respective diploma dissertations, which were both on topics in thermal conductivity. But many of the instances in which Einstein used inclusive language clearly relate to extra-curricular subject matter. What is in dispute is whether this demonstrates that Marić worked together with him on this material.
Unfortunately many of the letters Marić wrote to Einstein in this period have not survived. However, one thing immediately apparent is that whereas Einstein’s letters frequently contain reports of ideas he is working on, and of physics publications he is reading in relation to them, there is not a single one of Marić’s that contains any corresponding material. Her letters occasionally refer to work related to her diploma studies, including her dissertation project, but are mostly devoted to personal matters relating to friends and family. Stachel has examined the letters in the context of the claims about Marić, and makes a number of telling points. During the period in question Einstein was deeply emotionally involved with Marić, and clearly believed that they would be colleagues in the future scientific endeavours he envisaged for himself. His use of inclusive language sometimes occurs in a context in which he is seeking to reassure her of his continuing attachment in the face of external difficulties. And, significantly, for every occasion that Einstein uses “we” or “our” in connection with a particular topic, there are numerous others when he uses “I” or “my”, indicating it is he who is actually working on the topics in question. In the case of one specific instance that has been cited, Stachel points out that there are more than a dozen uses of first person singular pronouns by Einstein in regard to this same subject matter. As Stachel writes, “His letters are full of accounts of his ideas about physics, including new theoretical ideas and proposals for new experiments… [E]ven in the case in which we have Marić’s direct response to Einstein’s letter detailing his rather striking ideas about the electrodynamics of moving bodies, no response to his ideas on this subject, or any other topic in physics that he raised, is found in her letters.”
It is significant that in relation to two instances in which Einstein uses inclusive language Marić explicitly states in letters to her close friend Helene Kaufler that the work in question was written by Einstein. In one of these letters she adds, “You can imagine how proud I am of my darling”, and in the other, “I have read this work with great joy and real admiration for my little darling, who has such a clever head.” It is evident that these are not the words of someone who made substantive contributions to the papers in question.
The claim has been made that Marić assisted Einstein with mathematical problems relating to his published work, specifically in relation to the 1905 relativity paper. This is negated by the fact that the mathematics used by Einstein in that paper does not go beyond fairly basic algebra and calculus. Moreover, in spite of the fact that Marić has been misleadingly described as a “mathematician”, her grade in the maths component of the final diploma exam in 1900 was less than half that of the other four candidates, and it was again her maths that let her down when she failed at the second attempt in 1901.
Aside from his published papers, Einstein’s Collected Papers contain an impressively large mass of letters to friends and to eminent physicists containing discussions of his current work in physics in the years from his student days to the time he and Marić separated. Against this there is not a single known document of Marić’s that contains ideas of her own on such subjects. As Robert Schulmann and Gerald Holton have written: “All serious Einstein scholarship, by Abraham Pais, John Stachel and others, has shown that the scientific collaboration between the couple was slight and one-sided… Nor is there a shred of documentary proof of her originality as a scientist.”
One item adduced by proponents of the collaboration thesis is the contention that the Soviet physicist Abraham Joffe claimed that Mileva Marić was co-author of the 1905 papers. According to the PBS “Einstein’s Wife” website, “there is at least one printed report in which Joffe declared that he personally saw the names of two authors on the 1905 papers: Einstein and Marity (a Hungarianized form of Marić)”.
This claim has been fully investigated and comprehensively refuted by Martinez and, in painstaking detail, by Stachel. The relevant passage by Joffe, part of an obituary for Einstein, is the following (literally translated by Martinez):
“In the year 1905, in Annals of Physics, there appeared three articles, thereupon beginning three most important, relevant directions in the physics of the 20th century. Those were: the theory of Brownian Motion, the photon theory of light and the theory of relativity. Their author – unknown until that time, a bureaucrat at the Patent Office in Bern, Einstein-Marity (Marity – the last name of his wife, which by Swiss custom is added to the last name of the husband).”
It is evident that Joffe did not claim that he had seen the original manuscripts, nor that Marić was a co-author of the 1905 papers; on the contrary, he writes that the author was “a bureaucrat at the Patent Office in Bern”, in other words, Albert Einstein. Furthermore, in a blunder symptomatic of the poor level of scholarship involved in this project, the fragment of a page in Cyrillic script displayed on the PBS website and in the documentary is not even by Joffe! As both Stachel and Martinez point out, it is actually from a popular science book by the Soviet writer Daniil Semenovich Danin. And, again, it does not cite Marić as co-author of the 1905 papers, nor say that anyone has seen her name on the original manuscripts.
One should also ask if it is conceivable that had Joffe actually declared he saw Marić’s name as co-author of the celebrated 1905 papers such sensational information would not have become widely publicised.
The PBS “Einstein’s Wife” website purports to present the facts about Mileva Marić so that people can make up their own minds about the claims that she was Einstein’s scientific collaborator. This can only be described as disingenuous, given that much of the material takes the alleged collaboration as given, and that the information provided contains a large number of tendentious errors and misconceptions. As Martinez has written of the documentary on which the website material is based: “Many of the claims are misapprehensions, speculations and hearsay.” The misinformation is too extensive to document here, and I shall cite only a few of the more egregious examples.
The homepage of the PBS “Einstein’s Wife” website has the following statement: “Einstein’s autobiographies never mentioned his first wife. The world only learned of her existence through the first release of Einstein’s private letters in 1987.”
The first sentence here is misleading, since Einstein did not write an autobiography in the normal sense. In his “Autobiographical Notes” for the volume Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist he stated that his scientific and philosophical views comprised the essential part of a life such as his. That being the case, he made no mention whatsoever of any personal or family matters in the article in question. He also wrote a late autobiographical sketch that appeared in the volume Helle Zeit – Dunkle Zeit: In memoriam Albert Einstein (ed. C. Seelig, 1956), in which essay he does mention Marić. As for the second assertion, the most cursory research would have revealed that biographies of Einstein written before 1987 do mention Mileva Marić, often providing considerable detail about her.
Under the heading “Mileva’s Story” we are told in relation to the period during which Einstein and Marić studied at Zurich Polytechnic: “He demands all her time. She sacrifices her studies as well as her friends. In the summer of 1900, they both fail their final exams. He somehow gets a diploma…”
In fact Einstein’s letters show that he encouraged Marić in her studies, and there is no evidence that she neglected them prior to her final diploma exam in 1900. Nor was Einstein responsible for Marić’s neglect of her friends – her letters show that her desire that they spend time together was at least as strong as his. More important, the statement that they both failed the diploma exam in 1900 is false (see above).
Leaving aside numerous other erroneous statements in this material, I’ll now turn to the PBS Lesson plans for teachers of high school students. In Lesson 1 (Mileva Marić Einstein) teachers are told: “Encourage students to understand that she was a gifted scholar and scientist prior to meeting Albert Einstein.” Now it is true that Marić graduated from high school with excellent grades, but thereafter her academic record was generally mediocre, and she failed to obtain a teaching diploma at two attempts. To represent her as a gifted scientist at any stage would be highly misleading, but to tell students this was the case even before she met Einstein is absurd.
A little later the students are told in relation to her attending one semester at Heidelberg University at the beginning of her second year of study: “She is excited and intrigued by the research of the professors. She shares her knowledge with Albert in their correspondence.” This piece of misinformation is based entirely on one letter that Marić wrote to Einstein in this period in which she provides a rather naive report of a lecture given by Philipp Lenard on the kinetic theory of gases. The notion that she shared knowledge of Lenard’s research at that time with Einstein is scientific nonsense.
In Lesson 2 (Two Women of Science) the students are misleadingly told from the outset that Marić (like Marie Curie) “broke through the male-dominated academic world to study physics at the highest levels”. The technique employed in much of the PBS Lessons material is to instruct students to stop the “Einstein’s Wife” DVD at relevant places and review sections that lead them to the ‘correct’ answers that are expected of them. For example, in this section they are told to note that the documentary states that when Marić came back from Heidelberg in 1898 “she brought back more than herself to Albert Einstein”, at which point students are told: “They published some early works together and conducted research together. They shared information through their writing. She brought back information that served as part of the foundation of quantum mechanics.”
Leaving aside the repetition of the erroneous contention that Marić was co-author of some of Einstein’s early papers, the final sentence is an embellished version of the scientific nonsense already presented in Lesson 1 (see above). What is being alluded to here is the fact that in one of his celebrated 1905 papers Einstein gave a revolutionary theoretical explanation in terms of light quanta for the results of experiments on the photoelectric effect published by Lenard in 1902. Nothing that Marić could have learned from lectures given by Lenard at the beginning of her second year of study in 1897-1898 could have had the remotest connection to Einstein’s theoretical solution for Lenard’s 1902 experimental results.
Later in the material the students are led to review the (false) contention in the “Einstein’s Wife” DVD that Joffe stated he has seen Marić’s name as co-author on the 1905 papers, and are then asked: “Why was Mileva’s name removed when the papers were published?” It speaks volumes about the material on the PBS website that students are asked to provide an explanation for an alleged incident the supposed occurrence of which is based, in Martinez’s words, on a “shred of non-evidence”.
At each stage teachers are made complicit in the misinforming of their students. For example, they are told: “Discuss with students their own opinion about Mileva. She had the education and the ability to conduct the research. They worked closely together for years, but she is not always listed on the papers.” Only people entirely ignorant of the nature of Einstein’s 1905 papers could write of someone who had twice failed her teaching diploma exam, with especially poor marks in the mathematics component, and for whom there is not a single document showing original ideas in physics, that she “had the education and ability to conduct the research”. By such criteria many thousands of graduates, let alone failed graduates, could have matched Einstein’s achievements. And note the way that the statement that Marić was not “always” listed on Einstein’s early papers carries the implicit subtext that she was co-author of the 1905 papers.
I could go on, but I’ll just mention that in Lesson 3 (Society’s Expectation of Women) the students are told yet again that “they both failed their exams” but “Albert’s grades were rounded up to a passing mark and Mileva’s grades were not”. It seems a false story can’t be repeated too often on this website.
The accounts propagated by the “Einstein’s Wife” documentary and PBS website portray Marić as pursuing a scientific career tacitly even after her academic failures. But there is evidence that even before her first failure at the diploma exam she had given up any such ambition. According to a letter written by Helene Kaufler to her mother in July 1900, Marić was “offered an assistantship at the Polytechnic but did not wish to accept it”; instead “she would rather apply for an open position as librarian at the Polytechnic”. The few letters to Helene in the period immediately following her marriage in January 1903 make no mention of physics, except in relation to her husband’s activities. Of Einstein she wrote: “I am even closer to my sweetheart, if that is at all possible, than I was in our Zurich days; he is my only company, and I am happiest when he is next to me, and I am often angry at the boring [patent] office that takes so much of his time.”
The true story
There is a very real story behind Marić’s life that’s worth telling in its own right, that of an academically talented girl who overcame both personal and institutionalised difficulties to acquire a College education in physical science from which women were disbarred in many parts of Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. But the actual facts of a life lived bravely in the face of adverse circumstances is apparently not enough for some doctrinaire feminists who have sought to make ideological capital out of claims based on misconceptions and erroneous contentions. They have seized upon these dubious claims to produce an alternative history of Einstein and Marić in a way that violates the basic tenets of principled historical research. Dubious speculation, hearsay evidence, and contentions that have been refuted are all asserted as fact, and excessive claims are made about Marić’s mathematical and scientific abilities that the records do not bear out. And now this false history is being used to promote Marić to the list of feminist icons, as she is portrayed by writers such as Andrea Gabor who uncritically recycle unsubstantiated and erroneous contentions as historical fact. The proponents of this alternative history display an almost complete ignorance of the scientific subject matter, and a corresponding lack of comprehension of the magnitude of Einstein’s achievements.
Although refutations of the claims now circulating have been made by knowledgeable physicists, this has had little impact in the public domain compared with misinformation of the kind presented on the PBS website. What is truly shocking is that PBS, which proclaims itself to be the largest educator in the US, should be party to the travesty of education represented by its “Einstein’s Wife” teaching material.
I would like to thank Alberto A. Martinez for his assistance during the preparation of this article.
2. Talmey, M. (1932). “The Relativity Theory Simplified And the Formative Period of its Inventor.” New York: Falcon Press, pp. 163-164.
3. The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Vol. 1, eds. J. Stachel et al, Princeton University Press, 1987, pp. 23-25.
4. Collected Papers Vol. 1 (Stachel et al, 1987), p. 214.
5. Highfield, R. and Carter, P. (1993). The Private Lives of Albert Einstein. London: Faber and Faber, p. 50.
6. Collected Papers Vol. 1 (Stachel et al, 1987), p. 247.
7. Personal communication.
8. Renn, J. and Schulmann, R. (eds.) (1992). Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić: The Love Letters. Trans. by S. Smith. Princeton University Press.
9. Stachel, J. (2002). Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z’. Boston: Birkhäuser, pp. 31-37.
10. Stachel, J. (2005). Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics. Princeton University Press, p. l.
11. Popović, M. (2003). In Albert’s Shadow The Life and Letters of Mileva Marić, Einstein’s First Wife. Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 70, 80.
12. Collected Papers Vol. 1 (Stachel et al, 1987), p. 247.
13. Letter in New York Times Book Review, October 8, 1995. Quoted in Brian, D. (1996). Einstein: A Life. New York: Wiley, p. 434.
14. Martinez (2005), “Handling Evidence in History: The Case of Einstein’s Wife”, School Science
Review, March 2005, 86 (316), pp. 51-52; Stachel (2005), pp. liv-lxiii.
See also Martinez (2004)
15. Martinez (2004): http://physicsweb.org/articles/world/17/4/2/1
17. For example: Seelig, C. (1956). Albert Einstein: A Documentary Biography. London: Staples Press; Michelmore, P. (1962). Einstein: Profile of the Man. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.; Clark, R. (1971). Einstein: The Life and Times. New York: World Publishing Company; Hoffman, B. and Dukas, H. (1973). Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel, London: Granada; Pais, A. (1982). Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein. Oxford University Press.
18. Renn & Schulmann (1992), pp. 3-4.
19. Martinez (2004)
20. Popović (2003), p. 61.
21. Popović (2003), p. 83.
22. Gabor, A. (1995). Einstein’s Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth-Century Women. New York: Viking, pp. 1-32.
23. E.g., Stachel, J (1996). “Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić: A Collaboration That Failed to Develop.”
Stachel, J. (2002). Einstein from ‘B’ to ‘Z’. Boston: Birkhäuser, pp. 26-38.