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14 March 2008

Women give up their light - Mileva Marić

Mileva202 A hip hip hooray out to little Albert Einstein on his birthday today. As he knows better than anyone, age is relative (har-de-har-har).

So let’s send a shout out to the man whose name is synonymous with genius. And let’s remind him that he owes his first wife, Mileva Marić, an apology, a life back.

When Mileva Marić turned 15, her father got special permission for her to take classes at an all-male prep school. She earned the highest grades in both math and physics, and started studying medicine in 1896. Soon after, she became only the fifth woman to be accepted at the prestigious Zurich Polytechnic, later known as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). That’s all to say that she was one smart cookie.

One of her classmates was Albert Einstein. Seventeen years old, he was just a boy. She was 21. He called her Dollie. She called him Johnny. Einstein’s parents opposed the relationship because she was too old, too bookish, disabled from birth because of a displaced hip, a Serb, and not Jewish.

Her grades started suffering and Mileva failed her final exams. Shortly after, she became pregnant. In the first of a lifelong series of horribleness, Einstein began to make excuses not to see her. Mileva gave birth to a daughter, Lieserl, and there is no record of Albert ever going to see the child. A year later, they were married, but when Mileva joined Albert in Bern to be married, the child was no longer with her. Either she died or was given up for adoption—no one knows.

Einstein’s most incredible year of work—1905—came during his marriage to Mileva, a woman about whom not much was known until the later publication of love letters between the two in which Einstein talks about “our work” and “our theory” and praises her intelligence. The argument still rages—did Mileva substantively contribute to his work? Did she actually do the math for him, as some say? Did she give up her life for him? As Mileva wrote to her friend, Helene, “…all that fame does not leave a lot of time for a wife. But what can be done, one person gets the pearl and the other just gets the shell?"

Their marriage grew strained; soon Einstein had a new lover, his older cousin and childhood playmate, Elsa Loewenthal. The crisis came in the spring of 1914, when Einstein accepted the position of a permanent member of the prestigious Prussian Academy of Sciences, as well as a full professorship at the University of Berlin. Mileva resisted going with him because his lover, Elsa, lived in Berlin. But go they did after Einstein delivered a long list of rules to Mileva, with commands such as, "you must answer me at once when I speak to you."

Einsteinmileva20detail In July, the day before the outbreak of World War I, Mileva came to her senses, packed her bags, and took the boys back to Zurich, where they moved into a boardinghouse. When the war finally ended, Mileva agreed to a divorce. And Einstein agreed to sign over to her any future Nobel Prize money as part of the divorce settlement. He was now free to marry Elsa.

Instead, he asked Elsa's eldest daughter to marry him! She demurred and he married Elsa in 1919, just as he begins his rise to world fame. He continued to have affairs throughout the marriage, with Elsa's permission.

As 1919 wound to a close, observations of a solar eclipse proved the General Theory of Relativity. Newspapers ran headlines: "Men of Science More or Less Agog." After Einstein won the Nobel Prize, he quietly routed the prize money to Mileva, as they had agreed. The next year, Albert fell in love with a friend's niece, hiring her as a "secretary." Elsa permitted Albert to see his mistress twice a week, in exchange for keeping a low profile.

“You have here a dear, seriously ill child. Often he asks if his father will come…,” his ex-wife Mileva wrote to Albert in 1932 about their son, Eduard, diagnosed with schizophrenia.

When Mileva died, her newspaper obituary didn't mention Albert.

What do we give away to serve the needs of others?

Ellen Goodman, writing in the Boston Globe, addressed the question of Mileva Marić:

The tragedy of Mileva's life is real enough. But it's of a more personal and a common dimension. It's a parable of two young people who begin life as intellectual soulmates. "How happy I am to have found in you an equal creature who is equally strong and independent as I am," wrote Albert. But somewhere along the way, life and love had an unequal effect in their lives as man and woman, and as scientists.

It's possible to read between the outlines. Pregnant and unmarried, Mileva flunked her final exam. Their first child was born out of wedlock and presumably adopted. By the time their second and third were born, Mileva had become wife, caretaker and often supporter of the family. Her scientific work stopped, his soared. Finally, the famous Albert left her for another woman and Mileva spent the rest of her life struggling to support herself and her children, including a psychotic son.

We can round up generations of wives before and after Mileva whose star faded or was eclipsed, who went from scholar and co-author to typist to a name on her husband's dedication page or his obit or nothing. Few women marry geniuses, but many have spent their lives in the shadow of ‘great’ men.”

When Einstein died, his brain inspired such awe that it was removed for study. But modern standards add another dimension to his biography. In his personal life, Albert was no Einstein.

On second thought, on this day of Einstein’s birth, let’s remember Mileva Marić instead.


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Great job, Patti.

It is worth noting that Einstein's most profound work was all completed before he became famous. And, as you note, the great majority occurred with Mileva as his wife and brilliant partner. To what degree and the details thereof, we may never know. What we do know is, it really doesn't matter. She was given exactly no credit at all, and that was not reflecting their true collaboration, whatever it was.

I agree with you that today is a great day to honor Mileva, and I now find justification for the haunted look one can see in Albert's eyes, particularly in photos taken late in his life. Knowing how badly he had behaved as a human being, I think he suffered for his actions. It is our shame that he suffered only in his conscience.

Then, again, maybe that is a punishment perfect for the crime: living with constant adoration while knowing what a jerk he has been to those he most loved.

Thank you for this. I knew nothing about her.

I've gotta say Patti, I've been reading your blog for awhile - love it! But tho todays entry is interesting, I really miss hearing about *you.* It seems like you always need a theme to keep you going these days: ABCs, special topics, or whatever. If you need a break to rejuvenate - give yourself permission to take it!

Rick - thanks for the additional illumination on Einstein - I wonder if he ever "got it" in terms of his personal life...

Marilyn - you're welcomed! Part of what I wanted to do this month is shine a light into dark corners, at least in part. I imagine there are many of us unfamiliar with her story...

Anonymous - thanks for your kind words about 37days - I'm so glad you enjoy it! While I'm not sure I'd agree that I always need a special theme to keep me going, I am enjoying building a structure into which I write at the moment. Playing around with the kinds of creativity and writing that occur within a prescribed playpen has been interesting for me, particularly in these months of finalizing my book. Thanks for your concern and thanks for missing *me* though I feel I'm still very much here! I hope you won't mind that next month will bring the 2nd annual 37days Poemapalooza for National Poetry Month!

Einstein honestly disgusts me. Although I do disagree that in his personal life he wasn't an Einstein. He obviously was. He found women who 'allowed' him to treat them without respect and love. I mean, if you ask me he had it pretty darn well. He had second wife who married him even after he proposed to her daughter and then the same woman allowed him to keep mistresses! He obviously picked women who put up with a lot of junk.

I'm just sorry to hear that Mileva got mixed up with him to begin with. Imagine how much more we'd know today had he not gotten in the way?!

To Albert, an Einstein haiku, re your post:

What you threw away
the light of your inner life
kept you in darkness.

I remember reading something about Hitler's childhood... that he was raised in an era where it was common that children were expected to be obedient, without question, that he had to ask permission to go to the bathroom, and was denied often...

As reprehensible as Einstein's actions were, I wonder if there's something about his own childhood and culture that would make him not even think twice about them? Not to excuse them, but to hold him up to 21st century expectations, and his wives up to 21st century awareness, doesn't seem realistic. Did they have a choice, except to put up with "his junk"?

I'm in the dregs of getting over the flu, so I may still be delirious with high fever. But was he aware of what he did, or was it just what men did? Would Mileva's work have had a chance to be seen without him?

I regret my ignorance of cultural history, that I don't know this.

Wow, nice synopsis. I'm new to 37 days, but love it.

My opinion of Einstein plummeted when I heard about how he treated his brilliant ex-wife a while back. And you're right, it's absolutely telling that he would give the Nobel money to her... What guy would do that, unless he was worried she'd let the cat out of the bag??

Let's indeed scrap Albert, and remember Mileva.

A couple of things strike me about this story. First, that while this tale happened long ago, it is repeated in so many relationships still today. Women are socialized to give up their light, even in this post Women's Movement era. It is very difficult to balance a promising career and a family and society simply does not support us in that quest. Secondly, how amazingly strong of Mileva to leave him in the first place. At that time and under those circumstances, she must have been an incredibly strong woman. Her light shone brightly through her love for her children.

Coimbra, April 23, 1975.
"A few days ago, during the homily of Sunday Mass in a parish church in rural surroundings, the priest spoke to his parishioners about the forthcoming elections for the Constituent Assembly. Launched hand of the parabola to be better understood and told them:

-- "My dear brothers in Christ: suppose that one of you is owner of a dairy cow; if you win the socialism, is the brother with a cow, but it has to give the milk to the party, if you win the communism, is without and without the milk cow ... " "

Very interesting. It's unfortunate that Mileva's brilliance was unable to shine to its full capacity. The scientific world could have been a different place . . .

this was oh so interesting. thanks. this, as i watch a CNN special on women in Iraq. this month of honoring strong women everywhere.

I can't tell you how many times I've worked with women while they were single, made great gains and plans as professionals in the film industry, only to be tossed aside when they partner with a man. Next thing you know, they are working to support his talent and develop his skills. He is the Director or Producer or Writer whose work must be given 100% of their support. They become that woman who is behind every (not so ) great man.

I can understand that happening in eras gone by, but now? After the women's movement?

Patti, thanks for this post, i knew nothing of Mileva and am glad you dedicated today to her. I got hooked on your blog a few weeks ago and especially loved the Tuba story (as a band kid for 8 years of my life) :)
Great blog and great post today :)

I'd heard some vague rumblings about Einstein's eccentric personal life, but I thought it was mostly confined to things like wearing shabby clothes and refusing to cut his hair. I had no idea! I'm really shocked.

I love this post and will send it to my 14 year-old daughter. What do they call it, a cautionary tale? Yesterday I read a library book to my younger daughters with this line in it: he paddled home in his canoe, "weak as a woman" and was so outraged that I defaced public property by drawing a pencil line right through it. My 6-year old was particularly shocked that I would do this to a beloved book. I chose to communicate the greater truth ... as you did, with Mileva. As you do, time and time again. Thank you for appreciating women this month - and every month!

Sometimes their light is taken from them or shone on one aspect of their life at the expense of others.

You might enjoy reading a book written by Judity Zinsser about the Marquise du Chatelet. She was 18th century mathematician and physicist, whose intellectual contributions have been overshadowed by the fact that she took Voltaire as her lover.

I knew nothing of this part of Einstein's life. It has left me intrigued to find out more.

>It is worth noting that Einstein's most profound work was all completed before he became famous.<

I shouldn't believe everything you read! This is nonsense. (How about General Relativity, for instance.)

About the love letters:
>Einstein’s most incredible year of work—1905—came during his marriage to Mileva, a woman about whom not much was known until the later publication of love letters between the two in which Einstein talks about “our work” and “our theory” and praises her intelligence.<

Here is a scholarly analysis by someone who has actually read the letters:

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