There are countless stories of women being pushed to the sidelines of history. I’ve heard of many instances of women giving up their dreams to support their husband or family member. Female scientists are slowly being recognized for their talents and contributions, but there is still a long way to go. The phrase, “behind every great man is a great woman” rings particularly true for this couple – Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić-Einstein, his first wife.
She was born on December 19, 1875. Her parents, Marija Ruzić and Miloš Marić, were well-respected members of the community, and Mileva had two siblings, Zorka and Miloš Jr. She attended high school the last year girls were admitted to in Serbia. In 1892, her father obtained a permit for her to attend physics lectures that were normally reserved for boys.
In 1896, five students were admitted to the physics-mathematics section of the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich – two of them were Mileva Marić and Albert Einstein. The two of them took many of the same courses and ended up getting comparable results. It sounds like a sweet love story that bloomed in college. Albert went on to discover many theories fundamental to modern physics, but Marić suffered from professional setbacks in her career.
The early 1900s were some of Einstein’s best years, and Mileva’s brother mentions how the young married couple would work on physics problems together during this time.
Over the next few years, Marić suffered; she became pregnant in 1902 and gave birth to a girl that was either adopted or died as an infant. She married Einstein in 1903, and settled into the role of a housewife, having another baby in 1904. The couple eventually got a divorce in 1919 after the birth of their third child. Einstein, meanwhile, enjoyed a golden period – his papers published in 1905 on atomic and relativity theory changed the way people studied physics.
It’s difficult to ascertain her contributions because she never published research or claimed credit for Einstein’s work. The main reason we know of her efforts is because of her correspondence with Einstein. The letters were discovered in 1986, and Einstein often referred to his papers as ‘our’ papers, hinting at her contributions. In 1990, a session on “The Young Einstein” in New Orleans helped bring Mileva into the spotlight. Two speakers interpreted the letters to argue for Marić’s “substantive” contributions to Einstein’s early work. This session sparked a number of books and articles on Einstein’s first wife.
She is a victim of her circumstances, attempting to enter a field that was – and still is – dominated by men. She struggled to realize her dreams of a scientific career. There are some scholars that dispute her contributions to Einstein’s work, while others greatly embellish her value. When it comes to close collaborations, determining individual contribution can be messy to entangle.
It’s difficult to define how much was her work because there isn’t much to go on. Since she had no publications of her own, so we have to rely on letters that were shared between them, and personal anecdotes from family members. What we do know is that she chose her husband’s aspirations over her own. We can guess that she chose to remain outside the spotlight, and didn’t desire public attention.
At the end of it all, Marić was ahead of her time. It’s fortunate to know that her efforts and her intelligence were recognized, even if it was later rather than sooner. Though she did suffer from personal and professional setbacks, her efforts finally gained her the recognition she deserved.
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