Was Einstein's First Wife His Silent Collaborator?

Mileva Maric and Her Relationship to Albert Einstein and His Work

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Was Einstein's First Wife His Silent Collaborator?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 1, 2015, thoughtco.com/was-mileva-maric-einsteins-collaborator-3530368. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2015, June 1). Was Einstein's First Wife His Silent Collaborator? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/was-mileva-maric-einsteins-collaborator-3530368 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Was Einstein's First Wife His Silent Collaborator?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/was-mileva-maric-einsteins-collaborator-3530368 (accessed September 20, 2017).
Mileva Maric and Albert Einstein, about 1905
Mileva Maric and Albert Einstein, about 1905. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

A 2004 PBS documentary highlighted the role that Albert Einstein's first wife, Mileva Maric, may have played in the development of his theory of relativity, quantum physics, and Brownian motion. He doesn't even mention her in his own stories about his life. Was she the brain behind the scenes, his silent collaborator?

Mileva Maric and Albert Einstein’s Relationship and Marriage

Mileva Maric began studies in science and math at a male prep school and getting high grades, and then studying at the university in Zurich and then Zurich Polytechnic, where Albert was a young classmate 4 years younger than she was.

She began failing in her studies after their love affair began and around the time she became pregnant with Albert’s child – a child born before their marriage and which Albert may never have visited.  (It is not known if she died in early childhood – she was ill with scarlet fever around the time Albert and Mileva finally married -- or was adopted.)

Albert and Mileva married, and had two more children, both sons, but the marriage was full of tensions including, in 1912, an affair that Albert began with his cousin Elsa Loewenthal. He divorced Mileva at the end of World War I. By that time, he was living with Elsa and had completed his work on General Relativity. He agreed that any money won from a Nobel Prize would be given to Maric.

Maric’s sister Zorka helped care for the children until she had a series of psychiatric breaks, and Mileva’s father died.  When Albert won the Nobel Prize, he sent the prize money to Mileva.

  Her mother died after Albert fled from Europe and the Nazis; one of her sons and her two grandsons moved to America. The other son required psychiatric care, and Mileva and Albert fought over funding his care.  When she died, Albert Einstein was not even mentioned in her obituary.

The arguments for this collaboration:

  • Einstein’s letters show that he thought little of his wife’s hopes and dreams to be a scientist, Letters show that she served as an assistant to her husband in writing his papers.
  • Letters also show that she served as a sounding board, that he talked over his ideas with her and she gave him feedback.
  • Einstein in some letters talked of their collaborating, though in general terms: “we’ll diligently work on science together” for instance.
  • Soviet scientist Abram F. Joffe who saw originals of three of Einstein’s key papers said they were signed Einstein Marity, with Marity being a version of the name Maric.
  • Albert Einstein gave his Nobel Prize award money to Mileva Maric.

The arguments against:

  • Being a sounding board and assistant do not equate to collaborating in the creation of Einstein’s revolutionary theories.
  • There’s no hard evidence for any real contribution on the part of Mileva Maric to the content of Einstein’s theories.
  • The reference to “Einstein-Marity” likely reflects a Swiss custom of adding a wife’s name to the husband’s, according to some Einstein scholars, and the only reference that can be located to a reference to this dual name by Joffe is a clear reference to Albert Einstein alone.
  • Mileva Maric never claimed publicly to be a collaborator on Albert Einstein’s work, and never asked for credit.
  • Einstein’s giving his Nobel Prize money to his ex-wife was part of a divorce settlement, and was a way of supporting her and his two sons from their marriage. There’s no indication it was done to acknowledge any contribution she made to his scientific work.

    Conclusion

    The conclusion, despite the documentary’s original strong claims, seems to be that it’s unlikely that Mileva Maric contributed substantially to Albert Einstein’s work – that she was literally his “silent collaborator.”  

    However, the contributions that she did make – as an unpaid assistant, helping him while pregnant and her own scientific career was falling apart, possibly with the stress of the difficult relationship and her out-of-wedlock pregnancy – demonstrate the difficulties which were peculiar to women of the time and which made their actual success in the sciences far more of a hurdle than what men with equivalent backgrounds and earlier education had to transcend.

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    mla apa chicago
    Your Citation
    Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Was Einstein's First Wife His Silent Collaborator?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 1, 2015, thoughtco.com/was-mileva-maric-einsteins-collaborator-3530368. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2015, June 1). Was Einstein's First Wife His Silent Collaborator? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/was-mileva-maric-einsteins-collaborator-3530368 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Was Einstein's First Wife His Silent Collaborator?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/was-mileva-maric-einsteins-collaborator-3530368 (accessed September 20, 2017).