1875 - 1948

Hidden genius

Born in Serbia, Mileva Marić studied physics and mathematics in the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich (todays ETH Zurich) in 1896. There were 5 people in that course, and one was Albert Einstein. In 1897, Mileva went to study in Heidelberg for one year, and she later on returned to Zurich. Mileva was an excellent student with a brilliant mind. She and Albert Einstein shared their passion for science and they intensively studied and discussed physics together. Albert wrote: “I find the work we do together very good, healing and also easier.”

Ending the course, Mileva had excellent grades (4.75/5), and even slightly surpassed her colleague Albert (4.74/5). While they often had similar grades, she got a 5/5 score in applied physics, subject in which Albert only achieved 1/5. Unfortunately, she failed an oral exam with the professor Hermann Minkowski, who gave 11/12 points to every male student, and only 5/12 to her. This reduced her overall grades to 4.0, and while the passing grade was 5, Albert with only 4.9 was declared passed and got his degree, but Mileva did not.

Mileva and Albert continued working together, and published their first article. While it is known from their private correspondence that both worked on the article, only Albert Einsteins’s name was included. It’s been suggested that this was maybe a sign of Mileva’s supporting Albert to gain renown and find a job, since, due to gender biases, including a woman’s name in the article may have been detrimental for its acceptance by the community.

Mileva's life's plan abruptly changed due to an unexpected pregnancy from an encounter with Albert. Under the conflicting circumstances, she took her second chance for the oral exam, and she was again failed. Despite her extraordinary written exams, professor F. H. Weber did not granted her the pass for the oral exam, and she did not receive her degree. This is a good example of how an outstanding student was hindered by inexplicable and likely unacceptable reasons.

With no more a student visa, Mileva had to temporarily go back to Serbia. In 1902 she gave birth to a daughter, from which most is unknown.

In 1903 Mileva and Albert got married, and they soon had two sons. At home, both would work together, often until late at night. Their continuous research collaboration on physics problems is known based on several testimonies from their friends and family. For example, Mileva’s brother noted Albert’s comment “I need my wife. She solves for me all my mathematical problems”.

And yet, Mileva’s name was forgotten, overlooked, suppressed.

Based on Mileva’s trajectory as mathematician and physicist, the numerous testimonies, their correspondence, and the gigantic gender bias of the time, it is not hard to identify Mileva Marić as an example of the Matilda Effect.

In a recent physics colloquium at ETH Zurich, the particle physicist Pauline Gagnon concluded that, in her opinion, the union between Mileva and Albert was based on love and respect, they both work together and disentangling their individual contributions will not be possible. Gagnon also added: "she merged her own aspirations with his, and saw his success as their shared success - they were 'ein Stein'." ('Note that 'ein Stein' means 'a rock' in German)

As above-mentioned, we probably will never be able to identify Mileva's individual contributions. However, many of us believe her role as Albert’s hidden research partner until their divorce in 1914. And even for those who believe otherwise, it is important to reflect on how life would be if she would have been given any credit and, most importantly, if she would have been encouraged to flourish.

Written by: Enriqueta Vallejo-Yagüe.