Throughout history, women have been involved in scientific discovery, but in the past their roles have been peripheral, underplayed or overlooked, and their names forgotten. Even the few success stories – women such as Marie Curie and Lise Meitner – depict a struggle for acceptance in a man’s world. In our somewhat more enlightened times, the desire to restore these shadowy women of science to their rightful place in history is strong. Unfortunately, the severe injustice of their plights can sometimes lead to well-meaning but ultimately flawed overcompensation.
Such seems to be the case for Mileva Marić. Born in 1875 in what is now Serbia, she showed early promise at school and was encouraged by her family to carry on with what limited studies were available to young women of that era. Embarking on a long journey of intense endurance and tenacity, she was allowed to attend an all-male gymnasium, where she held her own, although she had to receive special permission to enrol in physics. A move to Switzerland was required to enter higher education. Ultimately, Marić met her date with destiny at the Zurich Polytechnic: she was the only woman in her cohort, and the only other first-year physics student was Albert Einstein.
The pair struck up a deepening friendship and study partnership. Neither Marić nor Einstein was a top student, but only he passed his diploma. By then betrothed to Einstein, whose own career was taking off, Marić was also pregnant and flunked her degree exams for the second time; the two were probably not unrelated. Her child was born out of wedlock without Einstein’s attendance back at her parents’ home, and ultimately vanished from history, either to illness or adoption. The pair eventually married and had two more children, but their previous connection soon eroded; Marić was increasingly excluded from Einstein’s inner scientific circle during the height of the activity culminating in his 1905 paper on special relativity, and became ever more bitter. After his affair with a cousin, divorce followed, and Marić was never able to resume her interest in science.
Thus might her story have been forgotten, were it not for a series of biographers planting the seed that Marić contributed more to Einstein’s work than had been previously appreciated. These biographers apparently relied heavily on hearsay, and sometimes stated speculation as fact. In a process like Chinese whispers, further distorted by translations into various languages, as Einstein’s Wife makes clear, subsequent chroniclers repeated the stories uncritically and even embellished them. The publication of the couple’s correspondence fuelled the fire, as occasionally Einstein in more affectionate moments would refer to “our” work.
By the 1990s, the idea that Marić was the unsung co-author of Einstein’s brilliance was firmly rooted in the public domain, spawning books and articles and even television dramas. But this account, despite being an uneasy hybrid of two overlapping and lengthy essays, glued together by a brief treatise on the plight of women in science, does a convincing job of debunking the myth. At the same time, the authors note that the myth has marred the real human-interest story here: the remarkable struggle of a tragic woman who almost succeeded despite terrible odds.
Jennifer Rohn is principal research fellow in cell biology at UCL.
Einstein’s Wife: The Real Story of Mileva Einstein-Marić
By Allen Esterson, David C. Cassidy and Ruth Lewin Sime
MIT Press, 336pp, £24.00
Published 19 March 2019