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In the shadow of a genius lies a
brilliant woman     
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By Paul Niemann

[OCT. 21, 2004]  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 Munich, Germany.

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 relationship too.

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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.

[Paul Niemann]

Invention Mysteries is written each week by Paul Niemann. He can be reached at niemann7@aol.com.

© Copyright Paul Niemann 2004

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