Loretta Barnard

Did Albert Einstein cheat his wife, Mileva Marić, out of a Nobel prize?

Mileva Marić Einstein, a gifted scientist in her own right, may have played a bigger role in Einstein’s work than we know, with some believing that his famous theory of relativity was actually hers.

 

 

She never claimed any credit for Einstein’s work, nor did she ever publish independently, but perhaps the collaboration between Albert Einstein and his wife resulted in the famous scientist producing his greatest work. Born in Serbia in 1875, Mileva Marić was such a gifted school student that she was given leave to attend physics classes—not something girls were usually permitted to do at the time—and she soon earned herself a place at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich in 1896 where she met Albert Einstein, three years her junior. It’s said he wasn’t a focused student, missing lectures and studying at home, while Mileva dutifully attended all classes and shared what she learned with Albert. We know this from letters he wrote to her where he says that she made the work they did together easier, and acknowledges her role in keeping him focused on the task at hand.

When their formal studies came to an end in 1900, Mileva and Albert had achieved similar grades and although sources differ on her examination marks—some say they were poor, others exceptional—there’s no doubt that she was a highly intelligent young woman. Later that year the couple seemingly wrote a paper together but published it under Albert’s name only, possibly in an attempt to secure a job for him. So began Mileva’s journey into invisibility.

Mileva had given birth to a daughter in 1902. It’s not known what became of the child; she may have died, but scholars speculate she was given up for adoption as an illegitimate child would have hampered Einstein’s scientific career. Albert wanted to marry Mileva but only when he felt he could support her. Also, he had to run the gauntlet of his family’s disapproval—she wasn’t Jewish, she wasn’t German, she was far “too clever” to make a good wife—but they finally married in 1903, not long after Albert had secured a position at the Patent Office in Bern. Their first son, Hans-Albert, was born the following year.

There has been a great deal of debate over the role Mileva played in the work of Einstein. Some say that she was just giving the same support to her husband as any other devoted wife might give, that she was a brilliant sounding board for his ideas. Others argue that she wasn’t nearly as smart as most accounts report, which comes across as both churlish and sexist. But there is evidence to suggest she played a more direct role in Albert’s success. In a letter to Mileva dated 27 March 1901, Einstein wrote: “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”.

Just how much she contributed will never be known, but there is no question that Albert Einstein’s career flourished while he was with Mileva.

Theirs was a deeply intellectual partnership and after the birth of Hans-Albert, even though Mileva stayed at home doing domestic duties, in the evenings she and Albert worked together on physics-related issues. During 1905, Albert published a number of papers, all of which had been vetted by Mileva. She performed calculations, assisted with research and debated the theories he was proposing. Mileva’s brother Milos Marić reported that Einstein told him that he couldn’t work without Mileva because she made all the mathematical calculations required to validate his work.

It’s also widely reported that in 1905 on a visit to her family in Serbia, Mileva told her father that she and Albert had together recently completed significant scientific work “that will make my husband known round the world”. Russian physicist Abram Ioffe claimed to have seen the original submission papers for the theory of relativity and maintained that they were signed “Einstein-Marity”, “Marity” being a variant spelling of Marić, which he maintained confirmed her input. Her name, however, did not appear on the published work.

Einstein was given a teaching post in Zurich 1909 and the first eight pages of his first lecture were written in Mileva’s handwriting—not hard evidence to be sure, but it seems clear that Albert completely trusted Mileva with the task of preparing his lecture notes. And in a 1909 letter to a friend Mileva wrote, “with notoriety, one gets the pearl, one gets the shell”. She was happy to take a back seat in order for her husband’s work to be recognised.

The Einsteins’ second son Eduard was born in 1910, but by 1912, Albert found himself attracted to his cousin Elsa (later the second Mrs Einstein). Albert and Mileva separated in 1914 and divorced in 1919. One of the terms of the divorce settlement was that Albert—who had anticipated winning the Nobel Prize—would give the prize money to Mileva to be held in trust for their sons, but there are reports he gave her only half the amount. Whatever she received, Mileva invested it so she could raise her children, but her son Eduard suffered mental illness and sanatorium fees swallowed up what money she had. She spent the rest of her life (she died in 1948) caring for Eduard, and supplemented her meagre income by giving private tuition.

How tough it was to be an intellectual woman in the first decades of the twentieth century. Universities constantly put obstacles in women’s way and it was common for their contributions to be underplayed, unacknowledged, uncredited. As a wife and mother, Mileva’s own scientific aspirations were largely suppressed. Just how much she contributed to Einstein’s theories will never truly be known, but there is no question that Albert Einstein’s career flourished while he was with Mileva. It was the period during which he did his best work, including of course his theory of relativity. She was at the very least someone who nurtured her husband’s genius and if nothing else, should be acknowledged for that reason.

 

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who has authored four non-fiction books, been a contributing writer to a wide range of reference books and whose essays have been published across a number of platforms. A regular contributor to The Big Smoke, she also coordinates the TBS Next Gen program.

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