This isn't the rare
story about a man who was overshadowed by his wife. It's the tragic
story of a woman overshadowed by her husband. Most people have never
heard of her, but everyone knows his name.
Her name was Mileva Maric, and she
was born in 1875 near Zagreb, in what is now Croatia. She was born
with a birth defect that was common in her region, and it caused her
to walk with a limp throughout her life.
Mileva was a successful, self-made
woman who gave up a promising career to help her husband pursue his
career. She was a few years younger than Marie Curie, and the two
met later in life. She might have been on a par with Curie if she
had pursued her own career. Her story remains mostly unknown to this
day, even to historians.
When Mileva was 20, she began
studying medicine at a university in Zurich, one of the few
universities at the time that admitted women. This is where she met
her future husband, who was three years younger than she. We'll call
him Al until his full name is revealed. Al was a Jewish boy from
Both Mileva and Al failed their
final exams at the university, probably as a result of spending too
much time together and not enough time studying. (Parents, feel free
to use this column to lecture your kids on what will happen to them
if they don't study.)
Al later received a diploma, but
Mileva did not. When Al was the only person in his class to not
receive a teaching offer, he went to work at the Swiss patent
office. It was while working at the patent office that he became a
household name, albeit not for patenting any of his inventions.
Al's parents disapproved of the
relationship from the beginning. For one reason, Mileva and Al were
of different faiths. To make matters worse, she became pregnant out
of wedlock with his child. Worse yet, her parents disapproved of the
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After losing their daughter, Lieserl,
to an early death, they had two sons, Hans and Eduard. The couple
had a breakthrough year in 1905 when Al had three of his scientific
papers published. The third one was entitled "On the Electrodynamics
of Moving Bodies."
Their relationship was turbulent at
times, and they divorced in 1918 after 16 years of marriage. Al
later married again, this time to his cousin Elsa, only to have that
marriage end in divorce too.
Things didn't turn out any better
for Mileva. In 1920 she moved back home to help her ill parents, but
she also had to care for her sister who was suffering from
psychological problems. Her sister once burned a large sum of cash,
literally, that was hidden in an empty stove. (Again, parents, feel
free to use this column to lecture your kids on what can happen if
they hide their cash in the stove.)
As for Al's "On the Electrodynamics
of Moving Bodies" paper mentioned earlier, you probably know it by
its other name… "Einstein's Theory of Relativity." Albert went on to
win the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921.
You knew all along that it was
Albert Einstein, didn't you?
Mileva spent the last years of her
life caring for their son, Eduard, who was suffering from
schizophrenia. While Albert was not a very good husband, he was an
even worse father. He emigrated to America in 1933 and never saw
Eduard nor Mileva again, even though Eduard lived another 32 years.
When Mileva died in 1948, her
obituary made no mention of Albert. A hidden collection of love
letters that Albert and Mileva had written to each other in their
early years together was made public in 1990, finally revealing the
extent to which Mileva contributed to Albert Einstein's success.
Invention Mysteries is written each
week by Paul Niemann. He can be reached at
© Copyright Paul Niemann 2004