Erasing Mileva Marić-Einstein, The Woman Behind Einstein’s Math. (Women in Science 72)
Content Note: By the end of this article, you are not going to like Albert Einstein much. If this is a problem for you, if part of your sense of the grandeur of humanity is wrapped up in the sympathetic image of Einstein’s personality and genius, then you might want to give this episode a miss.
….Okay, you’ve been warned, now onto the cavalcade of sad things!
In 1948, a frail and care-worn woman died in a Swiss hospital after a complete mental breakdown. It was the best thing that had happened to her in four long, impossibly wearisome decades that seemed to revel in inventing new hardships for a single destitute woman to bear. Her name was Mileva Marić (1875 – 1948), once Mileva Einstein, and there was a time, long ago, when she was the mathematical heart of a startling revolution in physics.
Sometimes fate advertises its distribution of genius plainly, giving one person so many gifts in so many different fields of human activity from such an early age that even the most contrary and hardened of educators must take note. That’s the type of child Mileva was. She was born with a hip deformity that gave her a noticeable limp when she walked, but as if in compensation she was also given a voracious capacity for attainment. She loved mathematics and science, and was soon top of her class in those subjects. She wanted to learn Greek, German, and French, so she did. She was an accomplished singer and pianist, but also an artist, a lover of literature and psychiatry. Her interests simply consumed the world.
Jealous classmates, angry at her easy surpassing of their best efforts, lashed out at her one weak point and mercilessly mocked her limp, causing Mileva to withdraw even further into her private world of knowledge and achievement. She was quiet and thoughtful and academically unstoppable, eventually earning herself a spot at the prestigious Swiss Federal Polytechnic, or ETH (it makes sense in German), initially as a medical student but eventually switching fields to physics because, of course, if you’re a genius, switching from medicine to modern physics as your area of concentration is a mere matter of details.
She soared through the entrance examinations and the first set of exams, and everything seemed lined up for a great future, when a fellow student named Albert came into her life. Einstein was seventeen and a terrible student with scorn for anything but the most immediately useful mathematics, while Marić was twenty, a star performer, and enamored of math for its own sake as well as for its application to physics. He was gregarious and slovenly, and she was taciturn and laser-focused. They fell inevitably in love.
Which was the last thing Marić wanted. She knew what was expected of a wife, and believed that there was no way to become a top physicist while watching after a man’s sundry and unquestionable needs and demands. She transferred to Heidelberg to put some space between herself and Einstein in order to concentrate on her work, but he entreated her to return to Zurich, which she did after just a year. They worked hard together, imbibing massive amounts of caffeine to keep themselves up and studying in marathon sessions. Einstein had failed his entrance exams, and his professors unilaterally thought nothing much of him, but Marić saw his potential for genius and worked on him incessantly, slowly giving up her own path in order to support his, cooking for him and trying to catch him up on the math he had scornfully neglected up until then.
On the next round of exams, Einstein’s scores understandably went up while Marić’s predictably went down. In fact, she didn’t pass and, though another chance was coming up, fate was setting up the first of its major derailments of her life’s course, in the form of a baby. Though unmarried, Einstein and Marić had been carrying on sexually, and Marić became pregnant, which was social suicide in the conservative climate of Switzerland. Einstein’s family had always hated Marić, as she (a) wasn’t Jewish, (b) had a deformity, and (c) was an intellectual, and not a doting housewife. They railed against any prospect of marriage, and Albert didn’t have the financial wherewithal to marry her even if they approved, so, after definitively failing her next and final set of exams, she returned to Serbia to have the child.
That child was a daughter named Lieserl, a daughter whom Einstein never saw. He married Marić after he took up work at the Swiss patent office, but as an illegitimate child was a scandalous thing for a patent clerk to have, Lieserl had to be given up. Marić got Einstein, at the cost of her daughter. There is a bitter mention of her loss in one of Marić’s letters, and then utter silence. We don’t even know when and where Einstein’s cast-off daughter died.
It wasn’t a promising start to a marriage, but for a few years at least, their mutual work kept the couple in a dangerous state of near bliss. Einstein and Marić worked on the photoelectric effect and special relativity, where by Einstein’s own later admission Marić cut through the thorny mathematics that Einstein couldn’t penetrate on his own. She oversaw the house and the care of their new children during the day, and handled Einstein’s math at night, and so great was her contribution that the photoelectric effect paper, for which Einstein eventually won the Nobel Prize, originally had Einstein-Mirac listed as the authors, before it was whittled down to Einstein alone for unknown reasons.
Einstein’s years with Marić were the most productive of his life, culminating in the Miracle Year of 1905 which saw the publication of special relativity, a quantum explanation of the photoelectric effect, and a model of Brownian motion. Einstein had reaped the benefit of Marić’s self-sacrifice and mathematical gifts and, by way of gratitude, proceeded to behave heinously to her for the rest of her life. He spent more and more time away from the family, cut Marić out of his scientific work, having Marcel Grossman do the heavy mathematical lifting on his theory of general relativity in her stead, and dragged the family to Prague for a position that enhanced his own prestige while offering miserable loneliness for everybody else.
All of which was magnanimous and broad-spirited compared to the callousness he had in store next for the woman who made his life of unruffled genius possible. During the First World War, when Einstein was installed at the University of Berlin, Marić took the children to Switzerland to escape the madness and the horridness of the Prussian schooling system, fully expecting her husband to join them at the first opportunity.
Instead, he stayed behind in Berlin to carry on an affair with his cousin, the intellectually uncomplicated Elsa Lowenthal. His sons grew resentful at his absence, and Einstein had the unmitigated gall to rage at Marić for turning them against him, and then to ask for a divorce unless she agreed to a numbered list of conditions, which culminated in the following:
“You explicitly oblige yourself to observe the following points in interaction with me. 1. You expect no tenderness from me nor do you make any accusations of me. 2. When you direct your speech at me you must desist immediately if I request it. 3. You must immediately leave my bedroom or office on my request without opposition.”
Essentially, she was to do his laundry and cook his meals and keep up appearances while foregoing all expectation of human warmth or decency for the rest of her life while leaving him free to act however he wanted outside of the home, where she was never to appear with him again. He would consider returning to do his duty by his children during wartime, but only at the price of Marić’s total and abject subjugation to his whim and will.
To her credit, Marić rejected this almost inhumanly callous set of demands and granted the divorce, supporting her children through the war less on Einstein’s infrequent payments of child support than on her own efforts to teach music and mathematics privately in Zurich, and borrowing from friends. When Einstein won the Nobel Prize, he did send her the winnings which she used to buy three houses, two of which she had to sell to pay for the continuing hospitalization of their schizophrenic younger son, and the third of which, the one she lived in, she was compelled to sign over to Einstein, who promptly sold it without asking her, though granting her the right to stay in one of the apartments.
Einstein and Marić eventually reconciled, and he would settle into the family lodgings whenever he swung by Zurich for a visit, while Marić dotingly attended to his needs. The great man saw nothing wrong with allowing the woman whom he had abandoned, cheated on, and left destitute, to cook and clean for him again on his visits as if still his wife, and quite enjoyed the attention.
But Marić’s sufferings were far, far from over. Her brother was captured by the Russians during the War and, though alive for decades more, she never saw him again. Her sister went mad, persecuting everybody in the family with her misanthropic fits of rage. Her own son, nicknamed Tete, after a promising youth as a musical prodigy, starting hearing voices in his head, gained massive amounts of weight, became obsessed with pornography, and attacked his own mother on two occasions. Never quite able to make ends meet from her teaching salary and boarder income, she fretted over every dollar in order to earn enough to send Tete to the sanatorium for rest and recovery.
Once among Europe’s most promising mathematical minds, Mileva Marić ended her days worrying about what would happen to Tete when she died, pinching her pennies, and tending to her cactus specimens. Albert Einstein died a hero to the world, whose remark at having “survived Nazism, and two wives” was always good for a knowing laugh.
FURTHER READING: Im Schatten Albert Einsteins: Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Marić by Desanka Trbuhovic-Gjuric is the book to have. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find and expensive when you do. I have the French translation Mileva Einstein: Une Vie by Nicole Casanova, which is much cheaper and entirely charming, though the pages and pages of italic font she uses from time to time are pretty hard on the eyes. Trbuhovic-Gjuric is also a Serbian, and brings a sense of historical understanding to her approach of Marić that is rarely there in other accounts. There’s also a chapter on Marić in Andrea Gabor’s Einstein’s Wife (1995) which is good but which also amounts to only like 25 pages. Dennis Overbye’s Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance (2000) is an interesting dual biography that reads like a novel and makes for a good hot day on the back patio volume.