Scientists Anonymous

I recently chanced upon Scientists Anonymous: Great Stories of Women in Science (2005), by Patricia Fara, Senior Tutor and Director of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Clare College, Cambridge. Aside from her several popular books on science, Dr Fara is relatively well-known in the UK for her contributions to Melvyn Bragg’s BBC Radio 4 series “In Our Time”, on which she has featured on seven occasions in the years 2008-2010. Scientists Anonymous is published in the series Wizard Books (the children’s imprint of Icon Books), and is designed to be read by teenage schoolchildren. This to some extent dictates the style the author has chosen, and she succeeds in making it a very readable book.

As the title implies, Fara provides brief sketches of the life and work of a large number of women who have made contributions to science, grouped under a variety of chapter headings. It’s a pretty mixed bunch, with a few well-known names, a number of women who certainly should be better known, and many of no great significance in scientific history. Overall Fara does a good job of showing teenage children that women have played a role in science that has not been widely recognized, but the book is unfortunately marred by the author’s propensity to overdo the current fashion for depicting women as the inevitable victims of male prejudice regardless of specific situations where a more nuanced approach would be more appropriate.

In what follows I shall be focusing on passages where Fara has, to a greater or lesser degree, misrepresented the situation she is describing in the interests of this agenda. This is not meant to devalue much of the content, or the intention of the author in drawing attention to the work of female scientists and mathematicians, but to emphasize the important principle that authors of non-fiction books, especially those addressed to children, should approach their subject matter as dispassionately as possible. What such books should not do is to carry an implicit message that is conveyed by exaggeration, tendentious selection of material, and even misrepresentation of the historical facts as is occasionally the case here.

The underlying tone of much of the book is set from the beginning, in the chapter with the title “Present”: “Many people argue that it is a waste of time teaching girls physics, because they are inherently incapable of grappling with mathematical equations and lack a good 3-D imagination” (Fara 2005, p. 14). I have been interested in science, education and politics for longer than I care to remember and I have never heard, or read, anyone asserting such an absurd notion in the crude terms expressed by Fara, let alone “many people”.

It would take a very lengthy essay to fully demonstrate all the deficiencies in Fara’s accounts, so a number of choice examples will have to suffice. For instance, Fara includes Rosalind Franklin in the introductory section under the heading “Nobel Prizes” as a “famous example” of women “excluded because of her sex” from a Nobel Prize joint award (p. 174). But Franklin was dead when the 1962 Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins for their contributions to the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule, and it is a condition of the Prize that it is not awarded posthumously – as Fara herself implicitly acknowledges later in the section on Franklin! (p. 186). (Though she immediately adds, “In 1962, three men were awarded the prize for DNA, and many people feel that she was treated unfairly”, which rather muddies the water.)

Fara’s account of Franklin’s experiences at King’s College London in the early 1950s mixes valid points about the treatment of women in many science departments in that era with tendentious misrepresentation of the facts. She writes: “[Franklin] had been told that she would be in charge of the X-ray diffraction unit, but in fact a senior researcher called Maurice Wilkins was already using X-rays to analyse DNA. From the very beginning, Franklin felt she was excluded from normal laboratory life, and her relationship with Wilkins deteriorated until they were scarcely on speaking terms” (p. 187).

Compare this with the account by Brenda Maddox in Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady  of DNA (HarperCollins, 2002), an author without an axe to grind. Maddox notes that, thanks to a letter from head of the biophysics section John Randall shortly before she joined his department, Franklin was under the misapprehension that Wilkins would be “moving off DNA”, leaving her in charge of the X-ray work. She made this clear in no uncertain terms to Wilkins, who was “profoundly shaken” by her words, especially as he was assistant director of the lab. (Maddox 2002, pp. 114, 149-150.) This was a major factor in the rift that developed between Franklin and Wilkins. (It does not take much to imagine what Fara would have made of the situation had a male newcomer to the department warned off Franklin from the work she had previously been doing.).

Fara writes that at King’s, Franklin “soon realised that women were discriminated against. She was even banned from entering the special coffee room where male scientists often discussed their work” (p. 187). She is presumably alluding to the exclusion of women from the King’s senior common room, but in other respects her claim of discrimination is wide of the mark. In the context of the male-dominated world of university physics departments Maddox says of the head of the biophysics section, John Randall: “Randall’s lab offered a strong contrast to this misogyny. Not only did he have many women on his staff, but they tended to find him as an employer sympathetic and helpful” (p. 134). Elsewhere Maddox writes in relation to Anne Sayre’s book Rosalind Franklin and DNA (1975) (which she describes as “marred by a feminist bias”): “As a biographer writing nearly three decades later and given access to Franklin’s personal correspondence, I found… a King’s College more congenial and welcoming to women scientists than Sayre had allowed. I also found that Franklin felt singularly unhappy at King’s, not so much because of her gender, but because of her class and religion: a wealthy Anglo-Jew felt out of place in a Church of England setting dominated by swirling cassocks and students studying for the priesthood.” (“The double helix and the ‘wronged heroine’.” Nature, vol. 421, 23 January 2003.) Perhaps more relevant in this context is that “The biophysics unit included a number of ex-military men [i.e., young men who had served in the armed forces in the Second World War] who had come to King’s for an intensive two-year undergraduate course, and who remained on, working together as a team… In short, an upper-middle-class Anglo-Jewish woman with French tastes in serious discourse suddenly found herself in an environment friendly to everything she was not.” (Maddox 2002, p. 128.)

In the immediate aftermath of the publicity surrounding Crick and Watson’s discovery of the double helical structure of the DNA molecule, the crucial role that Franklin’s work with X-ray diffraction photographs played was not fully appreciated, not least because the two men working at Cambridge failed to draw sufficient attention to it. However, Fara provides her readers with a misleading account of the episode that enabled Watson to see Franklin’s celebrated DNA X-ray diffraction photo 51. She writes that “Behind her back, he persuaded Wilkins to show him an X-ray photograph that only Franklin, who was exceptionally skilled and systematic, had managed to obtain” (p. 188). In fact Watson had no knowledge of the photograph, taken some eight months earlier, until Wilkins “unguardedly” showed it to him in January 1953, having “no idea it would strike Watson with the force of revelation.” (Maddox 2002, pp. 195-196; see also J. Watson, The Double Helix, 1968, pp. 132-133.)

Incidentally, Wilkins himself had no knowledge of the photograph until Franklin’s research student Ray Gosling “brought it to him some time that January. Gosling, preparing to complete his thesis without Rosalind’s supervision [in July 1952 her application to join John Bernal's crystallography department at Birkbeck College London had been formally accepted], had every reason to show what was also his own current work to the assistant head of the department. ‘Maurice had a perfect right to that information,’ Gosling said, looking back. ‘There was so much going on at King’s before Rosalind came.’ Both he and Wilkins knew that the DNA research would continue after she left.” (Maddox 2002, p. 196.) [1]

On Watson’s much-condemned personal comments about Franklin in The Double Helix (1968), Fara provides her readers with her own paraphrase of his remarks, including the assertion that he “made offensive remarks about women scientists”, adding: “He later apologised, but he had probably only stated in print what many men were saying in private” (pp. 188-189). I have been unable to locate any such generalised remarks about “women scientists” in The Double Helix, and I suspect this is as gratuitous as Fara’s assertion about what “many men” say in private. But no doubt young female readers will get the message that Fara is evidently so keen to get across to them. (Incidentally, Watson did more than apologise for his personal remarks: in the Epilogue to the 1970 Penguin paperback edition of The Double Helix, he paid handsome tribute to her considerable scientific achievements as well as to her “exemplary courage and integrity” (p. 175).)

In the section headed “Nobel Prizes” Fara writes: “Joyce [actually Jocelyn] Bell Burnell is a British astronomer who worked with the Cambridge team that discovered pulsars in the 1960s… According to Burnell, she should have shared the Nobel Prize that was awarded to her [PhD] supervisor” (p. 174). But this assertion is contradicted by Bell Burnell herself in a talk (later published in Annals of the New York Academy of Science, vol. 302, pp. 685-689, December 1977) in which she explained why she disagreed with those who thought she should have been awarded a share in the Nobel, her final point being: “I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them.” (My own view, for what it’s worth, is that she should have been included in the award because of the exceptional way she persevered with confirming her results after her first discovery of the idiosyncratic radio signals.)

In this same section Fara highlights the work of the superb Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, who coined the term “nuclear fission”. After making entirely valid points about the obstacles Meitner faced as a woman trying to pursue a career in physical science at the University of Berlin in the early years of the twentieth century, the author recounts events during the crucial period in the late 1930s. As head of the physics department, Meitner collaborated on nuclear physics with her friend and colleague, Otto Hahn, head of the chemistry department. (Hahn was in charge of  the experimental work, while Meitner supplied the theoretical expertise.) When Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, Meitner (who was of Jewish descent) lost the protection her Austrian citizenship had given from Nazi racial laws, and had to escape clandestinely to Sweden. Fara reports: “When Hahn obtained some unexpected results, he turned to her [by letter] for help. With her nephew Otto Frisch, Meitner solved Hahn’s problem by working out how a uranium nucleus could split into two and release a gigantic amount of energy… Their long, close collaboration came abruptly to an end after Hahn published a paper separately from her, even though he had been helped by her insights. Working together, Meitner and Hahn had played a crucial role in modern physics, but although Meitner was nominated for a Nobel Prize, only Hahn received one.” (pp. 185-186)

While Fara’s comments about the failure of the Nobel committee to award Meitner a share in the 1944 Prize for chemistry awarded to Hahn alone (“for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei”) are entirely justified, her account of events is misleading. Soon after Meitner had escaped to Sweden, Hahn and the brilliant young experimental chemist Fritz Strassman performed an experiment the results of which they found themselves unable to explain theoretically. In December 1938 Hahn and Strassman sent a manuscript to the journal Naturwissenschaften (published in January 1939) reporting they had detected the element barium after bombarding uranium with neutrons, and Hahn simultaneously communicated their results to Meitner. She, together with her nephew Otto Frisch (a physicist who worked under Niels Bohr in Copenhagen), quickly worked out the theoretical explanation. In early 1939 two letters were sent to Nature, one signed by both with their theoretical explanation of Hahn and Strassman’s experimental results, the other signed by Frisch alone reporting his confirmation of those results after he returned to Copenhagen. (See Max Perutz, “A Passion for Science”, New York Review of Books, 20 February 1997.)

So the problem was not that, as Fara has it, “Hahn published a paper separately from [Meitner]“, since the paper in question reported experimental results that he and Strassman had obtained when she was in Sweden. Meitner’s theoretical explanation (published with Frisch) was quite separate, and together these papers should have ensured Meitner a share in the Nobel Prize. Notably absent from Fara’s account is any mention of Strassman, who also deserved a share in the Prize, as was belatedly recognised when the prestigious Enrico Fermi Prize was awarded jointly to Hahn, Meitner and Strassman in 1966. (It is ironic that in popular accounts of the discovery of nuclear fission, the male scientist Strassman is frequently airbrushed out of the story, as in Fara’s narrative, despite his vital experimental role, and almost never is he mentioned as also unfairly missing out on a share in the 1944 Nobel Prize for chemistry.)

The final entry in the section “Nobel Prizes” is Mileva Marić Einstein, under the subheading “Wife of a Genius”. Fara begins by stating that “Some historians claim that Mileva Einstein (1875-1948) was the true source of inspiration for Albert Einstein’s revolutionary theories of physics” (p. 189). In point of fact not a single one of the main proponents of this contention, Desanka Trbuhović-Gjurić, Dord Krstić, Senta Troemel-Ploetz, Evan Harris Walker and Margarete Maurer, is an historian (not that this would matter if the case they made was well founded). Historians of physics who have investigated the claims have all concluded that the contention is without foundation (notably John Stachel, but also Abraham Pais and Alberto A. Martínez). Fara goes on to observe that “if he did present her ideas as his own, it does seem strange that she never published anything separately”, but then depicts the situation in a characteristically tendentious way.

She writes that Einstein and Marić “did discuss the new physics of relativity at home with each other, but this was probably because – like many scientists – he wanted an intelligent listener to sound out his ideas.” Strangely, Fara seems to be unaware of the well-known fact that Einstein had such a “listener” par excellence in his friend Michele Besso, with whom he discussed what would become his special relativity theory in intensive exchanges both at the Bern Patent Office where they worked, and on their common journey to their respective homes.

Fara again: “Einstein may have started out with marvellous intentions, but it seems far more likely that after their marriage they slotted into a traditional relationship: he threw himself into his work, while she looked after their home and their family. Her case is sad, but also fascinating because it suggests what happened to many other female graduates – and still does.” Nowhere in her two page account does Fara mention the crucial fact that Marić twice failed the Zurich Polytechnic final diploma examination for teaching physics and mathematics in secondary school, nor that some two years after her second failure she lost their out-of-wedlock infant girl Lieserl, which undoubtedly left her temporarily in a state of depression. (It is not known whether Lieserl died, or was given up for adoption.) It was as a consequence of these events that Marić, understandably, gave up any ambition for a career in physics.

Fara errs not only by omission, she falsely states that “both [Einstein and Marić] graduated” (p. 190). In the introductory section under the heading “Nobel Prizes” she had earlier written that “Mileva Einstein [was] also a physicist” (p. 175), though someone who twice failed the diploma exam for teaching physics and mathematics in secondary school, and never produced any known work in physics, can scarcely be so described. She continues: “If his wife were his hidden collaborator, then a woman would have been responsible for the most fundamental theories of modern physics. Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees that she played such a crucial role.” Given the content of the preceding sentence, and the constant theme of the book, it is difficult to interpret Fara’s otherwise redundant use of the word “unsurprisingly” other than as suggesting that the fact that she was a woman was a significant factor in the rejection of the claim. This is an implicit, and totally unjustified, slur on the historians of physics cited above.

Returning to her theme that Marić was unwillingly cast into the role of wife and mother, Fara reports Einstein’s saying “how happy he was to have a wife who ‘takes care of everything exceptionally well, cooks well, and is always cheerful” (p. 190). This is tendentiously expressed. Einstein (in a letter to Besso two weeks after his marriage) did not say how happy he was to have a wife who did all those things, he merely reported on the situation (Albert Einstein Collected Papers, Vol. 5, Doc.5). (Without doubt he was happy with the situation, but the insinuation that that was how he essentially saw Marić’s appropriate place in his life is contradicted by his repeated encouragement for Marić in her studies when they were students, and his expressing to her his hopes for them to have a future life together working on physics, subsequently dashed by her double failure to pass the diploma exam.)

Fara’s implicit contention that Marić’s ambition for a career was thwarted by Einstein’s selfish disregard of her wishes (pp. 190-191) is inconsistent with the evident contentment she felt in the first years of her marriage, as she indicated in letters to her close friend Helene Kaufler Savić  (M. Popović (ed.), In Albert’s Shadow, 2003, pp. 83, 86). (Incidentally, contrary to many accounts, in the early years of the marriage, Einstein was an attentive and loving father: “My husband often spends his leisure time at home playing with the little boy…” (2003, p. 88).)

Following her writing “To get as far as university, Mileva Einstein must have been a very clever woman”, Fara asks: “So why did she never produced any original work?” (p. 190) The implication that one has to seek an explanation why a student who succeeds in getting to university doesn’t later produce any original work is rather odd, seeing that this has been the case with many hundreds of thousands of university students, and indeed applies to the great majority of science graduates. But the straightforward explanation, that Marić, like many students who attain high grades at high school, found university level physics and mathematics rather more challenging is taboo among almost all those who write on this subject. Rather than entertain this forbidden possibility, Fara seeks the explanation in Marić’s lacking “the extra spark of determination” essential for a woman to succeed against “so many obstacles” placed in front of her, or alternatively, to blame Einstein: “Another answer it is that she married the wrong man. Albert Einstein was so absorbed in his own career that he did little to encourage either her independence or her cooperation.” (See “Appendix” below for rebuttals of these alternatives provided by Fara.)

Turning now to some other prominent women scientists and mathematicians featured in Scientists Anonymous, the talented mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) is rightly commended for her work in connection with the theoretical ideas of Charles Babbage for machines capable of performing complex calculations. Within this context Fara writes: “The ideas that Lovelace introduced would later revolutionise computing. Her outstanding innovation was the concept of computer programming” (p.110).

Is this emphatic assertion an accurate summing-up of the historical record? Judging by her own contribution (and, especially, that of an expert on the history of computing) to the BBC radio programme on Lovelace in March 2008, it is not:  

Melvyn Bragg: “Some people say that the Notes [published by Lovelace] contain what can be thought of as the first computer programme…”

Patricia Fara: “There is some dispute about whether she actually wrote that bit of it, or whether Babbitt did, what she did, or they did together…”

[…]

Doron Swade (Visiting Professor in the History of Computing at Portsmouth University): “The point I wanted to pick up on, to be exact about Ada being credited with being the first programmer, she published the first thing we would now recognise as the first programme, though programming was not a word they used at that time, and it’s absolutely understandable that she should be so perceived, because the first series of steps of instructions, we would now call it an algorithm, was published under her name, or at least, under her initials. The thing is that the work was Babbage’s… The concept of a programme, what we would now  call a programme… is based on Babbage’s work before Lovelace had any major involvement in the analytic engines… The actual principle of a programme was Babbage’s.”

At this point Fara came in, but (significantly) did not attempt to dispute what Swade had just said. Evidently what Fara writes for what one might call a captive audience, one unlikely to have any knowledge of the subject, and what she says in a serious science programme in the company of her peers, are two rather different things.

Emilie du Châtelet (1706-1749), who lived with her lover Voltaire for some fifteen years, was an extraordinary woman who played a crucial scientific role in enabling the work of Newton to gain acceptance in France. Fara justifiably draws attention to her virtual exclusion from the history of science and records her achievements. But she is unable to resist a gesture towards the background agenda of her book:

“Together du Châtelet and Voltaire wrote France’s first main book on Newton’s physics [Elements of Newton's Philosophy]… Their joint publication was a big success, and is often seen as a turning point in French physics, when people switched from Descartes to Newton. But, surprise, surprise – only Voltaire’s name was on the title page! However, the book did contain a long poem by Voltaire paying tribute to Emilie du Châtelet as a great genius who studied at his side.” (p. 71)

Leaving aside the way she expresses this for her teenage readers, with her gratuitous sarcastic comment, is it so evidently the case that du Châtelet’s name should have appeared on the title page with Voltaire’s? Not so, one would gather, from the authoritative Emilie Du Châtelet: Selected Philosophical and Scientific Writings, edited by Judith P. Zinsser (University of Chicago Press, 2009), a book having the declared aim of renewing interest in an unfairly neglected scientific writer (pp. 16-22). While du Châtelet undoubtedly collaborated with Voltaire, Zinsser refers to Elements of Newton’s Philosophy as his (Voltaire’s) book on several occasions (pp. 8, 16, 53, 111, 119, 161), as does du Châtelet herself in a letter and book (pp. 60, 119). She even published critical reviews of the book (pp. 16, 111) and a critical comment in her Foundations of Physics (p. 119).

According to Zinsser, as well as the poem to which Fara alludes Voltaire also “wrote a preface to his Elements that extolled du Châtelet’s role in its writing” (p. 59, n.13), something Fara omits to mention. Unfortunately, readers of Fara’s section might well, from its general tone, fail to appreciate just how widely acclaimed du Châtelet was in her lifetime: “In her own day, her published works brought her the learned reputation she sought” (p. 16).

A brief comment on another woman featured in Fara’s book: she writes of the geologist Charles Lyell’s wife: “For his success, he depended on his wife, Mary Lyell, yet only his name appears on the title pages of the books which she helped him to write” (p. 104).

Is it in fact the case that Charles Lyell’s success depended on the valuable assistance given by his wife (who became an accomplished conchologist) after their marriage? Hardly, since he married her in 1832, whereas the crucial research that underpinned his later work was undertaken without her presence well before that year, and the first volume of his celebrated Principles of Geology was published in 1830. Peter Whitfield writes:

“… Principles of Geology (published in three volumes 1830-33) laid the foundations of the modern science of geology… […] Lyell’s views were the product of his all-important field-trips in the late 1820s in France and Italy, especially in the volcanic regions of the Auvergne and Sicily.”

There are some sixty women featured in Fara’s book, and without a considerable amount of time-consuming research it is impossible to ascertain how accurately she has portrayed their various contributions to science and mathematics. It is a consequence of the author’s tendentious and not infrequent inaccuracies or misrepresentations in the case of scientists with whose work I am familiar that I have my doubts about how reliable these vignettes are, quite possibly unjustifiably in many instances. However, I would certainly advise that they be treated with caution. And considering Fara’s academic status, it is remarkable how many factual errors there are, including the howler that “Only one person, man or woman, has won two Nobel Prizes – Marie Curie” (p. 175). In fact, if we consider Nobel Prizes for science alone, there are two other double award recipients: John Bardeen (1956 and 1972) and Frederick Sanger (1958 and 1980).

It is unfortunate enough that simplistic and often misleading accounts in relation to some of the more significant scientists above are promulgated without similarly tendentious accounts being published with the authority of a Senior Tutor in the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University. That what Dr Fara writes may well be uncritically recycled is demonstrated by a short review commending the book in the Canadian Women in Science and Technology Newsletter (January to April 2007) that contains erroneous statements about the only two scientists whose work is briefly discussed. Likewise, Scientists Anonymous was the Critics Choice in the Guardian’s education section in October 2005 (i.e., a recommendation for its use in schools). And I suppose it was inevitable that Scientists Anonymous would be included in the reading list for the “In Our Time” BBC Radio 4 programme on “Women and Enlightenment Science” broadcast on 4 November 2010, in which Fara participated.

I have had reason to comment before about academic feminists being cavalier with facts when writing on scientific topics. Scientists Anonymous unfortunately serves to confirm there is valid cause for concern.

Note

1. For a full account of the events leading to the discovery of the structure of DNA, see Watson Fuller, “Who said ‘helix’?”, Nature, vol. 424, 21 August 2003, pp. 876-878. Fuller writes: “The history of the discovery of DNA is too often presented in popular accounts in terms of results ‘stolen’ by Watson and Crick, with Franklin as the victim. Yet in the complex interactions in and between the two laboratories, it is not sustainable to view Franklin merely as a victim of other people’s actions. […] It was to the sad detriment not only of herself but also of the King’s laboratory as a whole that Franklin chose to work in isolation on a problem, the solution of which depended on confluent results from several workers using different techniques. This is particularly a matter for regret because the experimental work that Franklin performed at King’s was of the highest quality; her use of Patterson techniques to obtain structural information from fibre-diffraction data was highly innovative, if disappointing in its outcome. Franklin’s approach contrasted markedly with that of Wilkins, who made his results freely known.” (p. 876)

Appendix: Mileva Marić

With reference to Fara’s suggestion that Marić’s failure to achieve a scientific career was in part a consequence of “so many obstacles” that she had to face, it is certainly true that Marić had to overcome institutional barriers in Serbia for girls wishing to acquire a high school education in physics. However, once she had achieved her immediate goal of enrolling for a university level course in physics and mathematics in 1896 at the prestigious Zurich Polytechnic, this was no longer the case. Indeed, unlike Einstein (who was on bad terms with the professor of physics Heinrich Weber), in 1900 she was offered an Assistantship (Popović 2003, p. 61), but her failure in the final diploma examinations at least temporarily postponed the possibility of her career progressing in that direction, and her second failure the following year precluded it entirely.

The other, glib, explanation that ultimately it was Einstein’s fault that she didn’t have a career in physics is again unsupported by the evidence. Passages encouraging her in her studies in letters in their student years and his expression of his wish for their eventually sharing a life of scientific endeavour together are testimony to his hopes for their future (Renn & Schulmann 1992, pp. 13-14, 15, 32, 33, 39, 54, 59), as was his encouraging her to jointly study books on advanced physics (pp. 9, 16, 35, 52, 72-73) and his regularly regaling her with his ideas on extra-curricular physics (pp. 14, 17, 18, 22, 37, 40, 41, 43, 45, 47, 53, 54, 68, 69, 71). Once she had failed the diploma examination for the second time in 1901 (while disadvantaged by being some three months pregnant), followed by the trauma of the loss of their out-of wedlock infant daughter, she evidently gave up her ambition to work on physics (Hans Albert Einstein, in G. J. Whitrow (ed.), Einstein: The Man and his Achievement, 1967, p. 19).

Authors who emphasise Marić’s academic prowess base their contentions on her high school record in Serbia, where she excelled in physics and mathematics. However, her academic achievements thereafter are either not recorded in the literature or are patchy. Neither of her biographers, Trbuhović-Gjurić and Krstić, provide her grades at the end of the academic year 1895-1896 at the Zurich Higher Girls’ School, though they do give full details of her courses and teachers from the school records. Nor do they provide her grades in the Matura examinations (university entrance level) that she passed in 1896. (In contrast, Einstein’s grades for his final high school year 1895-1896 at the Cantonal School in Aarau, Switzerland, are reported in the literature, as are his Matura grades. In the former he gained good or adequate grades in all subjects other than French, and in the latter he was top of nine examinees with a grade average of 5.5 (scale 1-6), despite, at 17, being considerably younger than the other candidates. (Collected Papers, Vol. 1, Doc. 19; Fölsing 1997, pp. 44-45.)

In the Polytechnic entrance examinations for mathematics which she was required to take in late summer 1896, Marić achieved a moderate grade average of 4.25 (scale 1-6). Her end-of-semester coursework grades for 1896-1900 were moderately good, but she came only fifth out of six candidates in the intermediate diploma examinations, and last out of five in the final diploma exams in 1900. Her failing to gain a diploma on that occasion was almost certainly due to her very poor grade in the mathematics component (theory of functions), only 2.5 on a scale 1-6. (Einstein was top of the group of six candidates in the intermediate diploma examinations, and fourth out of five in the final diploma examination, having neglected his coursework material in the previous two years until the immediate period before the exams, preferring to follow up his extra-curricular physics studies. Contrary to the impression sometimes given, the coursework grades recorded on their respective Zurich Polytechnic Leaving Certificates for the nine subject topics taken in common show that Einstein’s were higher than Marić’s for six of them (Collected Papers, Vol. 1, Doc. 28; Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, p. 61).)

I have provided the above information to enable a more accurate picture to be gained than the one usually presented of a brilliant university student who somehow missed out on a successful academic career, for which something or someone (Einstein) must be to blame. Rather, the documentary evidence points to her suffering the fate of large numbers of students who achieve excellent examination results at high school, but find university level work more challenging and fail to live up to their early promise.

 Selected references

Einstein, A. (1987). The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Vol. 1. Princeton University Press.

Esterson, A. (2006). Mileva Marić: Einstein’s Wife

Fölsing, A. (1997). Albert Einstein. London and New York: Penguin Books.

Krstić, D. (2004). Mileva and Albert Einstein: Their Love and Scientific Collaboration. Kranjska, Slovenia: Didakta.

Popović, M. (2003). In Albert’s Shadow: The Life and Letters of Mileva Marić, Einstein’s First Wife. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Renn, J, and Schulmann, R. (1992). Albert Einstein/Mileva Marić: The Love Letters. Princeton University Press.

Stachel, J. (2002). Einstein From ‘B’ to ‘Z’. Boston: Birkhäuser, pp. 26-38: Stachel’s reply to Troemel-Ploetz and Walker; also 39-55.

Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1988). Im Schatten Albert Einsteins: Das Tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Marić. Stuttgart: Paul Haupt. (French translation: Mileva Einstein: Une Vie (1991). Paris: Antoinette Fouque.)

 November 2010

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