While Mileva Marić was married to Albert Einstein, many believe she greatly contributed to his world-changing discoveries — only to be denied credit later on.
In 1896, a young Albert Einstein walked into the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich. The 17-year-old student was beginning a four-year program in the school’s physics and mathematics department. Of the five scholars admitted to the department that year, only one of them — Mileva Marić — was a woman.
Soon, the two young physics students were inseparable. Mileva Marić and Albert Einstein conducted research and wrote papers together, and soon began falling in love. “I’m so lucky to have found you,” Einstein wrote to Marić in a letter, “a creature who is my equal, and who is as strong and independent as I am! I feel alone with everyone else except you.”
But Einstein’s family never approved of Mileva Marić. And when their relationship soured, Einstein turned against his wife, and may have robbed her of crucial credit for her work on “his” groundbreaking discoveries.
Who Was Mileva Marić?
Mileva Marić was born in Serbia in 1875. A bright student from her early years, she quickly moved to the top of her class. According to Scientific American, in 1892, Marić became the only woman allowed to attend physics lectures at her Zagreb high school after her father petitioned the Minister of Education for an exemption.
According to her classmates, Marić was a quiet but brilliant student. Later, she became just the fifth woman at the Polytechnic Institute to study physics.
At the end of their degree program in 1900, Mileva Marić posted higher grades than Albert Einstein. While Einstein received a one in applied physics, Marić scored a five, the highest possible grade. But during the oral exams, she fell short. While the male professor gave each of the four men in Marić’s class an 11 out of 12, she received a five. Einstein graduated. Marić did not.
Although he received a degree, Einstein did not have a job. The couple conducted research together, hoping it would lead to a degree for Marić and a job for Einstein. “How proud I will be to have a doctor for my spouse,” Einstein wrote to Marić.
Yet their first article only listed Einstein’s name.
Einstein told Marić he could only marry her once he had a job. But his family also strongly opposed the relationship.
“By the time you’re 30, she’ll already be an old hag,” Einstein’s mother wrote — because Marić was nearly four years older than him. The Einsteins did not want a Serbian intellectual with a limp joining their family.
Mileva Marić’s Unplanned Pregnancy
In 1901, Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić were working on a stunning research project. According to the Washington Post, Einstein wrote to his partner, “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!”
That work — which would become Einstein’s theory of special relativity — would transform him into one of the most famous physicists in history.
But an unplanned pregnancy derailed Marić’s role as Einstein’s research partner. And Einstein still refused to marry her until he landed a job.
Desperate, Marić took her oral exam again. And again, a male professor failed her. She dropped out of school and returned to Serbia to give birth. Her child, Lieserl Einstein, would vanish from historical records. Most likely, Lieserl died or the couple put her up for adoption.
Finally, Einstein landed a job in a Swiss patent office in 1902 and agreed to marry Marić the following year.
Between 1904 and 1910, Marić gave birth to two sons, Hans Albert and Eduard. She worked at her husband’s side on his research. And Einstein published five articles in 1905, his “miracle year.”
Behind the scenes, Mileva Marić calculated figures, argued theories, and wrote lectures for her husband. When he began teaching in Zurich, Marić wrote his lecture notes. When physicist Max Planck reached out to Einstein with a question, Marić wrote back.
As her husband grew more famous, Marić confided to a friend, “I only hope and wish that fame does not have a harmful effect on his humanity.”
Life As Albert Einstein’s Wife And Overlooked Partner
By 1912, Einstein had given up on his marriage. He started an affair with Elsa Einstein Lowenthal — his cousin, whom he would later marry. Writing to Lowenthal, Einstein called Mileva Marić “an unfriendly, humorless creature.” He also admitted, “I treat my wife as an employee whom I cannot fire. I have my own bedroom and avoid being alone with her.”
Einstein and Marić discussed a separation. The New York Times reports that, with their marriage on the line, Einstein proposed a compromise in 1914. He would continue the marriage if Marić agreed to his conditions.
“A. You will see to it (1) that my clothes and linen are kept in order, (2) that I am served three regular meals a day in my room. B. You will renounce all personal relations with me, except when these are required to keep up social appearances.”
Einstein also demanded, “You will expect no affection from me… You must leave my bedroom or study at once without protesting when I ask you to.”
The pair finally divorced in 1919. Marić insisted on a clause in the divorce document stating that if Einstein won a Nobel Prize, she would receive the money.
Six years later, Einstein tried to go back on his promise. Marić objected, hinting that she could prove her contributions to his research. Einstein wrote to his ex-wife, “When someone is completely insignificant, there is nothing else to say to this person but to remain modest and silent. This is what I advise you to do.”
The Death of Mileva Marić And Her Legacy Today
Mileva Marić struggled to support herself in the decades after her divorce, even though Einstein ultimately followed through on his promise to give her the Nobel Prize winnings, around $500,000 in today’s money.
In Marić’s final years, she devoted herself to caring for her son Eduard, who struggled with schizophrenia. After Marić’s death, Einstein lamented that Eduard was alone in a mental institution.
“If only I had known,” Einstein wrote, “he would never have come into this world.” When Eduard died, his father had not seen him in over 30 years.
Marić made it possible for Einstein to launch his career. But to do so, she had to give up her aspirations of working as a scientist. And once Einstein grew tired of his first wife, he cast her aside.
While Mileva Marić never received credit during her life, after her death scholars have pointed to Einstein’s first wife as a critical contributor to the scientist’s legacy.
After reading about the life of Mileva Marić, Albert Einstein’s first wife, discover 25 facts you might not have known about Albert Einstein. Then learn about other brilliant but overlooked female scientists.