Ada Lovelace Day 2010

This Ada Lovelace Day post was actually written a few years ago when I was trying to get a documentary about the following woman commissioned. These are the ‘notes’ I wrote about her as reference for the proposal. It’s not written with flair (I’m full-time mummying a 10 month old at the moment!), but the underlying story is, I think, rather powerful.

“I treat my wife as an employee whom I cannot fire.”- A.E.

Mileva Maric was born on December 19, 1875 in Titel in what is now Serbia, but was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Even in primary school Mileva’s teachers noted her academic abilities. At 7 years old she was reading, doing maths and fluent in both her native Serbo-Croatian as well as German.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s rules forbade the high school education of girls, but her father, determined to give her the opportunity for an advanced education, received special permission to send her to the Royal Classical Gymnasium (High School) in Zagreb. Mileva, an ethnic Serbian, became one of the first women in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to be educated in a school alongside boys.

After two years in Zagreb, she left school with the top marks in physics and mathematics and moved to Switzerland to finish her education, as it was one of the only places in Europe that accepted female students in higher education.

Mileva enrolled as a medical student in the University of Zurich in 1894. After two years of medical studies, she decided that she was more interested in physics so moved to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School (ETH) and joined Division VIA which trained students to be mathematics and physics teachers. Apart from Mileva there were four male students in the class. Along with Mileva only one other student was specialising in theoretical physics, Albert Einstein.

After a year she went to Heidleberg for one semester in order to study under Professor Philip Lenard. Albert and Mileva were exchanging letters at this point, and in one she wrote about a lecture she had attended on the relationship between the velocity of a molecule and the distance traversed by it between collisions. After this letter, this topic would be relevant in Einstein’s studies and is discussed in one of his three famous papers published in 1905.

The University of Heidelberg did not allow women to graduate, so Mileva returned to Zürich. She and Einstein started working and studying together. She took notes when he couldn’t attend class and as she was better organised, she planned both of their studies. It was during this time they fell in love.

Mileva quickly became devoted to Einstein, sacrificing her studies as well as her friends as he began to demand all of her time. They often preferred to study on their own rather than attend lectures. In 1900 they had to take exams, Mileva fails hers, Einstein only just passes with the second lowest mark in the class. Einstein suggested she retake the exam the next year. She would never, however, graduate.

In late spring 1901 Einstein went to Italy to visit his family, Mileva stayed in Zurich preparing for her exam. In May they meet up in Lake Como for a few days. A few weeks later she learns she is pregnant. In July, she fails her exams again.

Both of their families were strongly opposed the idea of them getting married- after all Einstein was Jewish and Mileva was a Serb. Mileva left Switzerland to stay with her family in order to have the baby.

Their daughter Lieserl was born in 1902. Little is known about the life of this first child; it is generally believed that she was given up for adoption though there is some speculation that she died after a bout with Scarlet Fever.

At this time Einstein has been offered a job in the Patent Office in Bern. His university marks were too low for him to get a job in academia or even as a high school teacher.

Mileva and Einstein married in January 1903, ignoring the objections of their families. They continue their work on scientific theories together. When asked by a friend why she did not insist on more of the credit for their joint work, Mileva replied, “We are one stone; Ein stein.”

Their son Hans Albert was born in May 1904. Just before Mileva and Einstein’s second anniversary, the Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded to Marie and Pierre Curie.

Einstein writes to Mileva, “How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on the relative motion to a victorious conclusion!”

In 1905, Einstein publishes the Special Theory of Relativity. It has been said that that Russian physicist Abram Joffe saw an original manuscript signed ‘Einstein-Marity’ (Marity being the Hungarian version of Maric’s surname) implying that the papers originally credited Mileva. Others claim that it was simply Swiss custom for men to add the maiden name of their wife to their own name. Still others claim that Abram Joffe has been misquoted.

Their second son Eduard is born in 1910. By 1911, Einstein is so famous that he has distanced himself from his family, even stopping their “nightly physics discussions”.

In 1912, Einstein starts having an affair with his cousin, Elsa Löwenthal. On his 34th birthday, he gets a card from Elsa. That evening, Mileva is absent from a party. The next day, friends call on Mileva. Her face is bruised and swollen.

In 1914, Einstein received an offer from Berlin to join the University there and accepted. Mileva was unhappy with the move as Einstein’s cousin Elsa lived in Berlin. By this point, Mileva and Einstein have a marriage in name only. In one of his letters to her he writes down a list of demands
1. You must
-clean my laundry.
-make me three meals daily.
-make sure that my sleep and work rooms are always tidy, in particular the desk- which is for my use only.
2. You must do without all personal relations from me, as long as their maintenance for social reasons is not required. In particular you must not expect that
-I stay at home with you.
-I go out or go away with you.
3. You commit yourself expressly to accept that:
-You will receive neither tenderness nor any reproaches from me.
-You must stop speaking to me immediately if I request it.
-You must leave my sleep and/or work room immediately without contradiction, if I request it.
-You commit yourself to not lower me, neither by words nor by actions, in the eyes of my children.

Mileva decided to move back to Zurich with their sons. On Einstein’s demands she eventually agreed to a divorce on the condition that, should Einstein be awarded the Nobel Prize, she should receive all prize money.

The divorce was granted in 1919. Einstein received the Nobel Prize in 1921 and handed the prize money over to Mileva who used the award money to support their sons. During her last years Mileva lived a secluded life in Zürich. When she died she was buried in the Nordheim Friedhof Cemetery in Zurich. Her grave is unmarked.

In accordance with Albert Einstein’s last wishes his personal documents were deposited with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It contains hundreds of letter between him and Mileva. Some letters do suggest that Mileva made contributions to his most important publications, but was not acknowledged as co-author.

Whatever the reality of these claims, Mileva was, in Einstein’s own words, an “equal and who [was] as strong and independent” as her husband was. She was a victim of her time, tormented by her brilliant yet unused intellect, and betrayed by the man she loved.

11 Responses to “Ada Lovelace Day 2010”
  1. Chris Campbell says:

    Interesting stuff. Did you ever get the documentary commissioned?
    If I remember rightly, the excellent “Einstein and Eddington” on the BBC touched on some of the issues around Einstein’s marriage, but obviously not in too much detail…
    It is a shame that even in fairly recent history, women don’t always get the recognition for the part they have played in science.

  2. Garrett says:

    Wow, I didn’t know a lot of this. Thanks for posting it Gia.

  3. neil h says:

    What a fascinating and moving story – it really would make an interesting documentary.

  4. pfctdayelise says:

    Wow, that’s amazing. thanks for sharing this fascinating story on Ada Lovelace Day.

  5. baahar says:

    Wow !! What a life !

  6. Rachel says:

    That’s one of the the saddest things I’ve ever heard.
    God, I’m so ignorant! I had no idea about any of that.

  7. Rachel says:

    The position of woman in academia and those woman involved with academia via their husbands is an area which interests me. It’s a shame this was never commissioned; I would of found it as fascinating as I’ve found your post.

    The letter you posted from Einstein to Mileva surprised me, despite knowing some of their personal background before reading it; it’s so startlingly harsh and curt that I found myself left with no words.

    Again, this would of made a marvellously interesting documentary. I hope it gets commissioned one day!

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