In 1896, two students entered the Swiss Federal Polytechnic Institute at Zurich University. One of them was a 21-year-old Albert Einstein; the other a 20-year-old Mileva Marić. Both of them studied Physics, taking some of the same courses and achieving comparable results in many of them. They studied together, fell in love, and eventually got married. After marriage, Albert Einstein became one of the greatest scientists of all time after having found modern physics. The same cannot be said for his wife, for she faced many personal and professional setbacks just when her academic career should have set off. Decades later, the couple’s letters, acquaintances’ memories, and biographies were published, giving rise to a debate over the due credit of Einstein’s contributions to Marić.
Born in 1875 in Titel, Vojvodina, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and now a province of Serbia, Marić endured a shaky road as a girl wishing to study physics because education beyond four years of elementary school was reserved for men only. Seeing her potential, her father, Milos, sent her across the border where girls had the same educational rights as boys. Milos petitioned for Marić to be accepted into the all-male Royal Classical Gymnasium. She was accepted and became one of the first women to sit in a high school physics class alongside her male peers. At the time, physics had not produced many female names.
Eventually, she made it to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich where she was, quite unsurprisingly, the only woman in her class. Her presence at the university was unusual. In fact, it was here that she met her future husband, Einstein.
The letters translated by Shawn Smith not only allow a glimpse into Einstein and Marić’s personal lives but also into their intellectual development and their mutual love and enthusiasm for physics. The letters appear to reveal that the ideas presented by Einstein are a result of two genius minds and not just one. In one letter Einstein writes, “How happy and proud will I be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a victorious conclusion!” In yet another one, he states, “I am very curious whether our conservative molecular force will hold good for gases as well.” The recurrent use of phrases like “our investigation”, “our new study,” ”our view,” “our theory,” and ”our paper’’ can be found in many of Einstein’s letters. Einstein is also claimed to have said while addressing a group of Croatian intellectuals, “I need my wife as she solves all my mathematical problems for me.” However, the later letters show that Einstein was distinctive about his own work and his collaborative ventures. In one of the letters he writes, “The local Professor Weber is very nice to me and shows interest in my investigations. I gave him our paper. If only we would soon have the good fortune to continue pursuing this lovely path together.” This clearly shows that he was talking about two different projects: his own investigation and his joint collaboration with Marić.
One of the most controversial claims made in this regard is by a Soviet physicist, Abraham Joffe. According to Marić’s biography by Desanka Trbuhovic-Gjuric, Joffe claims that he saw the original three submission papers of the 1905 theory of relativity and said they were signed Einstein-Marity (Marity is the Hungarian variant of Marić). However, Marity was removed from the final publication.
Even after all the letters and such noted incidents as the couple “work together in the evenings at the same table,” scholars and historians still argue about Marić‘s involvement and contribution to Einstein’s work. A physics historian, Alberto Martínez wrote, “I want her to be the secret collaborator. But we should set aside our speculative preferences and instead look at the evidence.” However, everyone agrees that she was a pioneer for women in the sciences. Whatever the case may be, Marić deserves recognition not only for her resistance to hardships and difficulties and daringly exploring the world of physics but also for pioneering and opening the door for women after her.