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Does Mileva Einstein-Marić deserve credit for Albert Einstein’s discoveries?

by Hannah Carroll

Some people have said that Einstein’s first wife contributed to some of his most famous work. Do their claims hold water?
 

Background 

In 1896, Mileva Marić, a 20-year-old student in the math and physics department at the Zürich Swiss Federal Polytechnic, met her fellow student, Albert Einstein, who was four years younger. She and Einstein became close friends and they married in 1903. 

Born in 1875, in Titel, Austria-Hungary (now Serbia), Marić was raised in a wealthy family. She displayed a talent for mathematics and physics when she was young, and was eventually granted special permission to study those subjects at the nearby all-male high school. At university, where she met Einstein, Marić was the only woman in her class in the school’s mathematics and physics teaching program. 

Marić with her and Albert Einstein’s two young sons.
Marić with her and Albert Einstein’s two young sons.

The Big Question

There is significant speculation that Marić co-authored some of Einstein’s early work. In the span of their relationship, Einstein discovered the phenomenon of Mass Energy Equivalence, a prediction of the special theory of relativity, which was published in 1905. 

Over the years, those who knew Marić and Einstein professionally and personally have gone on the record to express their opinions on the topic. But there’s scant concrete evidence; only word of mouth and speculation. So what exactly are those people saying?

The Cases For and Against Co-Authorship

  1. Abram Joffe, a prominent 20th-Century physicist, testified that the name on the published 1905 papers was in fact Einstein-Marity, making a case for a second scientist having contributed to the work. He believes that Marity was a misspelling of Marić.

  2. Likewise, around the time of the 1905 publication, Marić herself reportedly told a friend, “We finished some important work that will make my husband world famous.” It is worth noting, however, that while the quote is widely cited, some allege it is merely “hometown folklore” and not a verbatim representation.

  3. Years later, American physicist John Stachel reignited the co-authorship debate when he pointed out that Einstein used the phrases “our theory” and “our work” when referring to his projects during his time as a student and as a classmate of Marić. Moreover, in letters to Marić from this period, Einstein used both “our” and “my” interchangeably to describe the work – often using the latter when discussing specific concepts, and the former when alluding to the work at large, leading some to infer that Marić must have then played at least a minor role in the development of Einstein’s theories.

  4. Both Marić's brother and one of her sons with Einstein recounted that during the Einstein-Marić marriage, the two scientists frequently discussed physics – and could often be found huddling together late into the evening at his desk.

  5. Marić biographer, Desanka Trbuhovic-Gjuric, has asserted that Mileva was even more gifted than Einstein in mathematics, and that the relativity paper of 1905 unfairly omitted one of its co-authors, totally overlooking Marić’s key contributions. 

Marić and Einstein, pictured with some of their written correspondence to one another.
Marić and Einstein, pictured with some of their written correspondence to one another.

Takeaways 

Marić and Einstein divorced in 1919, and Marić never claimed credit for any of Einstein’s work during her lifetime. And there is little tangible evidence to support the claims that Marić was a co-author of Einstein’s first major work. That said, there are plenty of personal testimonies from those who knew Marić and Einstein that her involvement was likely.

In any case, Marić’s story speaks to the sexism in academia and scientific fields at the time. In order to receive an education in physics and mathematics, Mileva had to surmount obstacles her husband never worried about. She was ultimately denied a diploma after her time in university. She struggled to manage the responsibilities of motherhood with career ambition. Whether or not Marić had her hand in the 1905 paper, gender discrimination ensured that she would not achieve her potential. Imagine if Mileva Marić had been a man.Yet to this day, her name is recognizable only in connection with her husband’s.

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