When Mileva Marić met Albert Einstein, she was the groundbreaker. The only woman in their class of six students at Zurich’s Polytechnic Institute in 1896, she was a studious nerd, sitting in the front of the class, raising her hand at every opportunity.
In contrast, her friend Einstein rarely attended classes and was poorly regarded at the institute. Letters that came to light in the 1990s paint Einstein as an enfant terrible in school, but a man besotted by his classmate. In one letter, he describes Marić as “a creature who is my equal, and who is as strong and as independent as I am.”
The reality though was not so romantic. It would see a promising physicist’s career cut short and superseded to her husband’s work, a process that women who see her as a role model continue to fight long after her death.
“She had a goal in her head: to become a physicist, and she channeled all her energy into that,” says Gabriella Greison, a trained physicist who’s also performed a play about Marić, Einstein & Me, more than 200 times around the world.
She’s also spearheaded a campaign (about which she’ll be filming a movie next year) to get Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), where Marić studied along with her husband, to award Marić a posthumous degree. There is precedent: Seven women who had been denied them in 1869 from the University of Edinburgh were posthumously awarded degrees earlier this summer.
While the two were students in love, Einstein’s family opposed a union — Marić, an ethnic Serb was neither Jewish nor German; she had a limp and was “too intellectual” for a woman. Then Marić became pregnant and flunked her oral exams. Still, Einstein refused to marry her, worried that marrying a woman who’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock would harm his job prospects.
Marić fled to her parents’ house in Serbia, where she gave birth to a girl and — though records have disappeared — probably gave her up for adoption. In spite of a difficult birth, Einstein never visited Marić, nor saw his baby.
She later moved back to Switzerland, where the two eventually married in 1903, once Einstein got a job at a patent office and could support a family. They had two sons, Hans Albert and Eduard. The couple separated in 1914 and divorced five years later after she discovered his affair with his cousin Elsa, who would become his second wife.
Science historians believe Marić helped Einstein in his early years by calculating, reading and editing his papers. Their oldest son, Hans Albert, told one Marić biographer that “he remembered seeing [them] work together in the evenings at the same table.”
Yet Einstein never included her name on any collaborations or inventions. It’s not likely that Marić was a secret author of Einstein’s theories, but it is plausible she assisted him in writing his papers and lectures. It’s more probable that Einstein surbodinated her to work to his own, leaving Marić alone to raise the children and care for the home — and no time to work in her chosen field.
Ruth Lewin Sime, a professor emeritus of Sacramento City College who contributed to the book Einstein’s Wife, imagines that because Marić was early in her pregnancy, she may have had morning sickness while studying for her oral exam — and had a boyfriend who wasn’t ready to marry her until he had a job, something Marić probably understood.
Having a baby outside of marriage was a huge societal obstacle, so it’s likely that Marić realized that to salvage their future together she would have to give up the child. “It’s a really awful thing to imagine. How isolated she must have felt as a woman,” Sime says.
“Marie was a poster child for everything that could go right, including a supportive husband, which Mileva didn’t have, and yet she still had a difficult time, especially after her husband died,” Sime says. Although she went on to win a second Nobel, the first person to have two, Curie never was accepted into the French Academy of Sciences.
Sime understands Greison’s efforts to get Marić’s degree posthumously but predicts it will be a futile effort. In a letter to Greison, ETH Rector Sarah M. Springman noted that Marić “did not pass her exam in her second and last attempt, which was the direct reason for her exmatriculation according to the rules in place at that time.”
An ETH spokeswoman told OZY that “we believe that Marić’s intellectual achievement should be appreciated and recognized in the scientific and social context of her time; this can be done in a number of ways and does not necessarily involve conferring a form of posthumous degree.”
Greison says she will keep trying, in part because she has been urged on by readers in Spain, England, U.S. and Italy. Maybe, she says, the ETH will admit a mistake like Edinburgh did, for the sake of the next generation.