Mileva Marić, the forgotten first wife of Albert Einstein

While Mileva Marić was married to Albert Einstein, many believe she contributed greatly to his world-changing discoveries – only to be denied credit later.

ETH libraryA photograph of Mileva Marić and her husband, Albert Einstein. 1912.

In 1896, a young Albert Einstein entered the Polytechnic Institute of Zurich. The 17-year-old was starting a four-year program in the school’s physics and math department. Of the five academics admitted to the department that year, only one of them – Mileva Marić – was a woman.

Soon, the two physics students are inseparable. Marić and Einstein conducted research and wrote articles together. “I am so lucky to have found you,” Einstein wrote to Marić in a letter, “a creature who is my equal, and who is as strong and independent as I am! I feel alone with everyone but you.

But Einstein’s family never approved of Marić. And when their relationship soured, Einstein turned on his first wife.

Who was Mileva Maric?

Mileva Marić was born in Serbia in 1875. A brilliant student from her early years, she quickly rose to the top of her class. According to American Scientistin 1892, Marić became the only woman allowed to attend physics lessons at her high school in Zagreb after her father requested an exemption from the Minister of Education.

According to her classmates, Marić was a calm but bright student. Later, she became the fifth woman at the Polytechnic Institute to study physics.

Mileva Maric

Bernisches Historisches MuseumA photograph of Mileva Marić from 1896, the year she began studying physics in Zurich and met Albert Einstein.

At the end of their study program in 1900, Mileva Marić posted higher grades than Albert Einstein. While Einstein received a in applied physics, Marić received a five, the highest mark possible. But during the oral tests, she failed. While the male teacher gave each of the four males in Marić’s class an 11 out of 12, she received a five. Einstein graduated. Marić did not.

Although he earned a degree, Einstein had no job. The couple conducted research together, hoping it would lead to a degree for Marić and a job for Einstein. “How proud I will be to have a doctor for my wife,” Einstein wrote to Marić.

Yet their first article only mentioned Einstein’s name.

Einstein told Marić that he could only marry her once he had a job. But her family also strongly opposed the relationship.

“By the time you turn 30, she will already be an old witch,” Einstein’s mother wrote – because Marić was nearly four years older than him. The Einsteins did not want a lame Serbian intellectual to join their family.

The unplanned pregnancy of Mileva Marić

In 1901, Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić were working on an amazing research project. According to Washington PostEinstein wrote to his partner: “How happy and proud I shall be when we have together brought our work on the relative movement to a victorious conclusion!”

This work – which would become Einstein’s special theory of relativity – would turn him into one of the most famous physicists in history.

But an unplanned pregnancy derailed Marić’s role as Einstein’s research partner. And Einstein always refused to marry her until he got a job.

Einstein Family

ETH LibraryAlbert Einstein and Mileva Marić with their first son, Hans Albert, c. 1904.

Desperate, Marić resumed her oral exam. And again, a male teacher let her down. She dropped out of school and returned to Serbia to give birth. His child, Lieserl Einstein, would disappear from historical records. Most likely, Lieserl died or the couple put her up for adoption.

Finally, Einstein landed a job at a Swiss patent office in 1902 and agreed to marry Marić the following year.

Between 1904 and 1910, Marić gave birth to two sons, Hans Albert and Eduard. She worked alongside her husband on his research. And Einstein published five articles in 1905, his “miracle year”.

Behind the scenes, Mileva Marić calculated figures, argued theories and wrote lectures for her husband. When he started teaching in Zurich, Marić wrote his lecture notes. When physicist Max Planck asked Einstein a question, Marić answered.

As her husband became more famous, Marić confided to a friend, “I only hope and wish that fame has no adverse effect on his humanity.”

Life as the wife of Albert Einstein

In 1912, Einstein had given up on his marriage. He began an affair with Elsa Einstein Lowenthal – his cousin, whom he would later marry. Writing to Lowenthal, Einstein called Mileva Marić “a hostile, humorless creature”. He also admitted, “I treat my wife like an employee I can’t fire. I have my own room and I avoid being alone with her.

Einstein and Marić discussed a separation. The New York Times reports that with their marriage at stake, Einstein offered a compromise in 1914. He would go ahead with the marriage if Marić agreed to its terms.

“A. You will see to it (1) that my clothes and linen are in order, (2) that I am served three regular meals a day in my room. B. You will renounce all personal relations with me , except where necessary to preserve social appearances.

Einstein also demanded, “You will not expect any affection from me…You must leave my room or study immediately without protesting when I ask you to.”

The couple finally divorced in 1919. Marić insisted on a clause in the divorce document stating that if Einstein won a Nobel Prize, she would receive the money.

Six years later, Einstein tried to go back on his promise. Marić objected, hinting that she could prove her contributions to her research. Einstein wrote to his ex-wife: “When someone is completely insignificant, there is nothing to say to that person but to be modest and silent. That’s what I advise you to do.

The death of Mileva Maric

Mileva Marić struggled to support herself in the decades following her divorce, even though Einstein eventually fulfilled his promise to award her the Nobel Prize, approximately $500,000 in today’s money.

During Marić’s last years, she devoted herself to caring for her son Eduard, who was battling schizophrenia. After Marić’s death, Einstein lamented that Eduard was alone in a mental institution.

“If only I had known,” Einstein wrote, “he would never have been born.” When Eduard died, his father had not seen him for over 30 years.

Mileva and son

Hebrew University of Jerusalem, IsraelMileva Marić and her two sons, Hans Albert and Eduard, c. 1914.

Marić allowed Einstein to launch his career. But to do so, she had to give up her aspirations to work as a scientist. And once Einstein got tired of his first wife, he put her aside.

While Mileva Marić never received credit during her lifetime, after her death scholars have singled out Einstein’s first wife as a key contributor to the scientist’s legacy.

After reading about the life of Mileva Marić, Albert Einstein’s first wife, find out 25 more things you might not have known about Einstein. Then check out these other brilliant but overlooked female scientists.

About the author