"Mileva Marić Einstein (1875-1948)" by Peter Frize: A critical review


Allen Esterson


Peter Frize is the author of Part IV of The Bold and the Brave: A History of Women in Science and Engineering (2009) with the title "Profiles of Three Women". In this article I shall be examining the section headed "Mileva Marić Einstein (1875-1948)", pp. 273-288.


At various places Frize writes on Einstein's and Marić's respective academic achievements, making occasional comparisons in terms detrimental to Einstein. On the latter's early development he writes:


Roger Highfield and Paul Carter are more positive about Albert's slow development, suggesting that what he later achieved gives hope to others who begin life with mediocre abilities… (p. 276)


But Frize misconstrues what Highfield and Carter write in this passage, which starts with a sentence that describes "Einstein's purported dimness" [emphasis added] as a "legend". Frize omits to mention that in the same paragraph the authors write that "as early as seven he started to show real promise", citing a letter Einstein's mother wrote to her sister in August 1886 in which she reported the young boy had been placed top of his class "once again" (and that he had received a "splendid report card"). (Highfield and Carter 1993, p. 15: Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 2.)  (It was the legend, not the actual facts of Einstein's early aptitudes as Frize represents it, that Highfield and Carter suggest is seductive in that it gives hope to the rest of us.)


Frize goes on to describe Einstein during his later education as "a capable but difficult student who disliked and rebelled against the strict discipline of the 19th-century German educational system, and quotes Carol C. Barnett as follows:


Albert Einstein did not have as illustrious an academic background as Mileva Marić. This may have been in part due to his attitude towards structured education… He preferred to pursue things that were of interest to him, and at times he was considered to be inattentive and disruptive by some of his professors. (Barnett 1998, 161)


The reference is to an unpublished doctoral thesis, and on this topic the author is highly selective in the information she supplies, and (like Frize) omits the following essential facts that were available to her in the first volume of the Albert Einstein Collected Papers, and in major biographies.


Though Einstein did not thrive in the uncongenial atmosphere of the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich, his own studies of physics and mathematics at home soon took him well beyond the standard of his schoolmates (Talmey 1932, pp. 162-164; Folsing 1997, pp. 21-24). In December 1884, at the age of fifteen, he decided to join his parents who had emigrated to Italy earlier that year and obtained from his mathematics teacher a letter authenticating that he was already up to matriculation (university entrance) level in that subject (Folsing 1997, pp. 30-31). Nor was he the poor student of legend: in response to such reports in 1929 the Principle of the Luitpold Gymnasium successor school reported that the school records showed that Einstein always obtained at least the second highest grade in Latin and always the second highest in Greek (Folsing 1997, pp. 18-19).


At the end of the academic year at the Swiss Canton School that he attended in 1895-1896, Einstein's leaving certificate grades were generally good, with maximum grades in algebra, geometry and physics. In the Matura (university entrance level) examinations in 1896 that he sat while still only 17 he obtained the highest grade average among the nine candidates, despite being by far the youngest (Fölsing 1997, pp. 44-45; Collected Papers vol. 1 [German], doc. 19, pp. 23, 25). Out of seven written exams, only in French did his grade fall below 5 (on a scale 1-6), and he achieved the maximum grade 6 in algebra, geometry and physics. In other words at university entrance level his examination results were generally good rather than mediocre as Frize contends (2009, p. 283), and he excelled in physics and mathematics.


Turning to Marić, she regularly excelled in the early years of schooling, and with the help of her father creditably overcame hurdles in the path of a girl wanting to obtain a scientific education in Austria-Hungary (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, pp. 21-22; 26-28). In her end-of-year exams in 1894 at the Royal Higher Gymnasium in Zagreb she obtained good grades in physics and mathematics.[1] In November 1894 she registered for the Higher Girls' School in Zurich and completed her secondary school education there in the academic year 1895-96 (Krstić 2004, pp. 30-32). Trbuhovic-Gjuric provides full details of Marić's courses and teachers at the Higher Girls' School, but her school grades are not recorded. She also reports that Marić passed her Matura examinations in the spring of 1896 at the Federal Medical School in Bern, but again her grades are unavailable (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, pp. 31-33).


However, we do have one examination result for Marić in 1896. Despite having obtained her Matura, which normally would have sufficed for entry, for some reason she was required to take the mathematics entrance examinations for the Federal Swiss Polytechnic (Zurich Polytechnic), which Trbuhović-Gjurić reports she passed in the autumn of 1896 (1988, p. 35). Trbuhović-Gjurić does not report Marić's grades, though these are recorded on the same Polytechnic certificate as her end-of semester grades that she provides later (1988, p. 43). However, in a supplementary section added by the editor of the German translation of her book, a facsimile of the certificate shows Marić's mathematics entrance exam results, for which she obtained a grade average of 4.25 on a scale 1-6 (1988, p. 60).


What does this tell us about the respective academic achievements of Einstein and Marić at the time they enrolled for the Zurich Polytechnic course for teaching physics and mathematics in secondary schools? Clearly when he put his mind to it, as at the Swiss Cantonal School in 1895-96 and in the Matura exams, he obtained generally good exam results, and excelled in mathematics and physics. For Marić, the situation is less clear cut. In the exams she took in Zagreb two years before enrolling at the Polytechnic her physics and mathematics grades were excellent. But in the year of her enrollment the only exam result we have is the moderate grade average of 4.25 (scale 1-6) in the mathematics entrance examination. Moreover, her end-of-semester grade average for four mathematics topics plus mechanics in the first year at the Polytechnic (1896-97) was a very moderate 4.2, and she failed to achieve a 5 in any of them. (Einstein's first year grades were certainly not brilliant, but he obtained higher grades than Marić in all but one of the topics, while they were equal on the remaining one. He was also recorded as "graduated" for analytic geometry.) (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, p. 43; Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 28.)


In view of Frize's contentions about Marić's mathematical prowess later in the chapter, it is worth reviewing her grades at the Polytechnic, and comparing them with Einstein's. In 1894, while still only sixteen, Einstein was given special dispensation by the Principal, Professor Albin Herzog, to take the Polytechnic entrance examinations. Being some eighteen months below the normal age requirement for entry, and out of the school system for some eight months while with his parents in Italy in 1895, he failed, but his grades in physics and mathematics were of such excellence that the physics professor Heinrich Weber invited him to audit his second year lectures on  physics (Einstein Autobiographische Skizze, p. 9; Folsing 1997, p. 37). This contrasts with the moderate grade average of 4.25 for Marić in mathematics mentioned above.


When we turn to the Polytechnic end-of-semester grades, we find that out of the four mathematical topics that they took in common, Einstein's exceeded Marić's in three, while they were equal in the remaining one (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, p. 43; Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 28.)  There is an even greater differential in Einstein's favour when we compare their intermediate and final diploma grades in mathematical topics. In the intermediate diploma examinations (in which he came top of their small group) Einstein's grade exceeded Marić's for all three, and in the final diploma examination he obtained 5.5 in the mathematics component (theory of functions), whereas Marić obtained a very poor 2.5, and failed to obtain the teaching diploma (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, p. 63; Collected Papers, vol. 1,  docs. 42, 67).


With these results in mind, I turn to this statement by Frize (p. 284):


When Albert Einstein was recognized for his work on the theory of relativity, he was seen to be endowed with the gift of genius. There was another talent he possessed that may have been overlooked: his ability to sense that spark of genius in others. His admiration for Marić's mathematical skills in their early years together at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule was made evident when he later admitted to Mileva's brother Miloš, and to several Serbian intellectuals: "I need my wife. She solves all the mathematical problems for me" (Barnett 1998, p. 164). Mileva may have solved many mathematical problems for Albert, but if so, her work was never recognized formally in any of his papers.


I shall come to the alleged statement by Einstein below, but first consider Frize's assertion that he sensed a spark of genius in Marić, and specifically admired her mathematical skills. As we have seen above, beyond her excellent grade in mathematics in Zagreb two years before her enrolment at the Polytechnic in 1896, her known record in mathematics was unexceptional, and her grades regularly below those of Einstein. There is in fact no documentary evidence that he admired her supposed mathematical skills, and he had no reason to do so.


In short, though her grades in physics were good, the oft-repeated assertion that Marić was a brilliant student or, more specifically, a brilliant mathematician, is not borne out by her academic record at Zurich Polytechnic; nor is there any reliably documented record of any later achievements in either mathematics or physics.


The suggestions that Marić's studies suffered because of alleged exploitation of her by Einstein, or of her subordinating her studies to his (Frize 2009, pp. 277-278; Gabor 1996, pp. 12-13), are not consistent with the documentary record. She achieved only a moderate grade in mathematics in the entrance examinations before she had even met Einstein, and whereas her grade average for the first year at the Polytechnic before she became deeply emotionally involved with him was only 4.2 (scale 1-6), for the period 1897-1900 it was a considerably improved 5.1. Even allowing for the fact that she was stronger in the subjects (i.e., physics topics) studied in the latter part of the course, this hardly indicates that she subordinated her studies to Einstein's. Several letters testify to Einstein's regularly encouraging her in her studies (Renn and Schulman 1992, Letters 7, 10, 24, 36) – in these early years of their relationship he harbored the expressed wish that they would eventually forge a joint future devoted to science (Letters 33, 48).


In this context Frize, following Gabor, writes that the final diploma exam failure in 1900 was Marić's "first academic setback" (p. 277), creating the impression that she had sailed through her course up to that time. But, as we have seen, her Polytechnic entrance examination and coursework grades in mathematical topics had been very moderate, and her passing grade average in the intermediate diploma examinations (which she took in July 1899, a year later than the others in her group, because of the winter semester spent auditing a course at Heidelberg University in 1987-88) was the lowest of the original group of six, so the scenario that Gabor presents (with the help of misleading grade comparisons [2]) of continuing "academic triumph" up to the last year of the course is grossly misleading. (Gabor 1995, pp. 10, 14; Trbuhovic-Gjuric 1988, pp. 43, 63; Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 42.)


Frize again cites Gabor 1995 for his assertion that "Friends stopped visiting them because they disliked the way Albert appeared to be exploiting Mileva" (p. 278). This is based on Gabor's writing that "Mileva saw less of her friends, who came to feel that Einstein was taking advantage of her, so much so that Mileva's friend Milan Bota… wrote a letter to her mother complaining that she 'rarely sees [Mileva] because of the German', whom she has come to hate" (Gabor 1995, pp. 12-13). But there is no mention of Einstein's exploiting Marić here, only the indication that because of her relationship with Einstein Marić was seeing a lot less of her girlfriends, a not uncommon occurrence for someone who has fallen in love. Evidently it was the case that Marić ceased to visit them regularly as she had at one time, not that (as Frize has it) "friends stopped visiting them". Here we have an example of a tendentiously misleading assertion being embellished in the retelling.


Frize (p. 277) also references Gabor for his assertion in relation to Marić's dissertation adviser Professor Weber that "on several occasions she clashed with him over his obvious dislike of Albert". He bases this on Gabor's writing "What is clear that Marić tried several times to intercede with Weber on Einstein's behalf…", and quotes her writing to her friend Helene Kaufler Savić in the summer of 1901: "I've already quarreled with Professor Weber two or three times, but I am already used to such things…" (Gabor 1995, p. 13). But far from it being clear that Marić interceded on Einstein's behalf, there is no actual evidence that this was the case. The letter from which Gabor quotes was the first intimation of Marić's problems with Weber, and in the autumn of 1901 she told her friend that "thanks to Weber's concerns, I have not yet managed to obtain a doctorate. I have put up with a lot from him and will on no account go back to him again" (Popović 2003, p. 78). There is also a letter from Einstein from the second half of May 1901 in which he writes: "So how is your work going, sweetheart?... Is old Weber behaving decently, or does he again have 'critical comments'…" (Renn and Schulmann 1992, pp. 51-52). Such evidence suggests that the problem with Weber was in relation to his criticisms of her dissertation, and there is nothing to indicate it had anything to do with Einstein's conflicts with Weber.


In short, Frize's contention that "a degree was denied to [Marić], due in part to the mutually negative relationship with professor Weber and Albert's exploitation of her time" (p. 280) does not stand up to close examination on either count. The two highest grades she obtained in the 1900 final diploma examinations were awarded by Weber (in theoretical and experimental physics), and if she had achieved similar grades in the other subjects she would have been gained the diploma (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, p. 64; Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 67). (In any case, her first failure was almost a year before she mentioned any difficulties with Weber over her prospective doctoral dissertation.) Remarkably, nowhere does Frize mention that in the 1900 final diploma examinations Marić's grade in theory of functions was a very poor 2.5 (scale 1-6), which alone suffices to explain her failure to graduate. (She improved this to 3.5 the following year, without improving her overall average grade of 4.0 [Stachel 2002, pp. 29, 52 n.4])[3]


Frize quotes (p. 277) Evan H. Walker's writing in a letter to Physics Today that "by 1900 Einstein's grades were down. Albert passed with a questionable 4.91 average, trailing well behind his classmates Jacob Ehrat, Marcel Grossmann, and Louis Kollros", and that "he barely satisfied the requirements for the degree" (Frize references Walker 1989, p. 122, but the correct reference is to Walker 1991, p 122.)


As Stachel had pointed out in response to a previous letter of Walker's in which the latter assertion occurs, in the intermediate diploma examinations Einstein had obtained the highest average grade in their group (5.7 on a scale 1-6). (Walker 1989, p. 10; Stachel 1989, p. 13.)  Moreover the difference between Einstein's grade average in the final diploma exams and that of the candidate immediately above was only 0.23, (it was 0.54 below the top grade average), so he hardly trailed well behind the others. (By comparison, Marić's grade average was 0.91 below Einstein's.) Again, in the four topics tested in the final diploma exams none of Einstein's grades was below 5 (it was his heavily weighted dissertation grade of 4.5 that brought the grade average below 5). Walker fails to mention that in the last two years of the course Einstein was more and more engrossed in his extra-curricular interests in physics to the detriment of his Polytechnic studies. (That Walker is tendentious in his discussion of this issue is evident from his writing as indicative of Einstein's academic deficiencies that in 1895 he "failed his first try at the entrance examinations for the ETH" without mentioning the crucial facts that Einstein was still only sixteen at the time, that he had been out of the school system for some eight months prior to the examinations, and that his grades in physics and mathematics were excellent.)


This takes us to the important issue of the correspondence between Einstein and Marić during their student years and just after (pp. 285-286). Frize writes


Among the fifty-four letters, eleven written by Albert appear to make references to joint work: that is, Albert sometimes makes statements such as "I am working… or "I have…" when referring to his research, but elsewhere he writes as if more than one person were involved. Consider these passages from other letters that seem to refer to Mileva's collaboration (with emphases added in each case). From Letter 20, dated August 8 or September 6, 1900:  "On the investigation of the Thompson [sic] effect, I have again resorted to a different method which is similar to your method (in Renn and Schulmann 1992, p. 30). From Letter 21, dated September 13, 1900: "My work seems pointless and unnecessary if not for the thought that you are happy with what I am and what I do… I am also looking forward to working on our new papers. you must continue with your investigations" (in Renn and Schulmann 1992, pp. 31-32).


The citation of letters 20 and 21 (Renn and Schulmann 1992) exemplifies the superficiality with which assertions are made in relation to the relevant letters, which date from the couple's student days and just after. (See also, e.g., similar contentions by Walker [1991, p. 122].)  Einstein's reference to "methods" in regard to the investigation of the Thomson effect is in relation to their respective dissertations, in Marić's case one she hoped to develop into a Ph.D. thesis, and Einstein's being his first attempt at a doctoral thesis, under the supervision of Professor Weber. (Both arose out of the dissertations they wrote for their final diploma examination in 1900, for which they each chose topics in heat conduction.) These are the "new papers" to which Einstein is referring, and they have nothing whatever to do with the extra-curricular researches in advanced physics that Einstein was engaged in.  (Both were aborted in 1901.)[4]


Frize's next citation is Letter 26, dated April 4, 1901, from which he quotes Einstein as follows: "He [Michele Besso] is interested in our research… he went on my behalf to see his uncle, Professor Jung… to give him our paper" (in Renn and Schulmann 1992, p. 41).


As the endnote at this point indicates, the paper in question is the one on capillarity that was published in Annalen der Physik in 1901 (Einstein 1901). The subject matter is molecular forces in liquids and gases, as was Einstein's second attempt at a doctoral thesis under the supervision of Professor Alfred Kleiner (University of Zurich). This subject matter is mentioned in ten of Einstein's letters (Renn and Schulmann 1992: Letters 21, 26, 28, 29, 33, 35, 40, 45, 48, 50). In eight of them he alludes to his ideas (or reading) on the subject, e.g.:


"The results on capillarity I recently obtained in Zurich seem to be entirely new despite their simplicity…" (3 October 1900).


"At present I am again studying Boltzmann's theory of gases… (30 April 1901).


"Tonight I sat at the window for two hours thinking about how to determine the law of molecular forces…" (second half of May? 1901).


"I am working on a theory of the liquid surface all the time, but totally unsuccessfully…" (22? July 1901).


In other words, although on occasion he uses the inclusive "our" (as in Letter 26 cited by Frize), it is evident that all the research and ideas are Einstein's, as again here:


"As for science, I came up with a wonderful idea that allows us to apply our theory of molecular forces to gases as well" (15 April 1901). (In the rest of the lengthy paragraph, as frequently in Einstein's letters, he goes on to expound on the subject.)


In addition, here is Einstein reporting his current work to his friend Marcel Grossman in April 1901:


As for science, I have a few splendid ideas, which now only need proper incubation. I am now convinced that my theory of atomic attractive forces can also be extended to gases, and that it will be possible to obtain the characteristic constants of almost all elements without great difficulty… (Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 100)


What does Marić have to say on the subject matter in question? As on other physics topics on which Einstein regales her with his ideas, there is absolutely nothing in her surviving letters from that period. (And if she had written on physics in the letters Einstein did not retain at the time, we can be sure there would have been some indication in his letters, such was his enthusiasm for his own researches.) More specifically, here is what she wrote to her friend Helene Kaufler Savić about the 1901 capillarity paper:


Albert wrote a paper on physics that will probably soon be published in Annalen der Physik. You can imagine how proud I am of my darling. This is not just an everyday kind of paper but is a very important one; it deals with the theory of liquids. (20 December 1900, Popović pp. 69-70.)


And here is Marić on Einstein's dissertation under the supervision of Prof Kleiner:


Albert has written a magnificent study, which he has submitted as his dissertation. He will probably get his doctorate within a few months. I have read this work with great joy and real admiration for my little darling, who has such a clever head… It deals with research into the molecular forces in gases using various phenomena. (December 1901, Popović pp. 79-80)


It is difficult to imagine that someone who writes in such terms about these two papers made any substantive contributions to them. Rather, Einstein's occasional use of "we" and "our" in relation to the subject matter of these two papers should be seen in the light of his deep emotional involvement with Marić in that period, coupled with his expressed wish for a future life together devoted to science. (See. e.g., Renn and Shulmann 1992, Letters 33, 48; also Letter 47, in which Einstein writes "Soon you'll be my 'student' again, like in Zurich", which gives some idea of their academic relationship.)


Again, one should consider that almost all the letters in question were written in the period from early March 1900 through late 1901. During the first half of 1900 Marić had been studying for her second attempt at the diploma, and working on her dissertation that she hoped to develop into a Ph.D. thesis through to October/November 1901, when she decided to give it up. After her second exam failure in July 1901, now some three months pregnant she had immediately gone to stay with her parents in Serbia, where she remained most of the following year having given birth to a baby daughter in January 1902. During this time Einstein had stayed with his parents in Italy (or vacationed with his mother and sister) when he was not working full time as a school teacher in Switzerland. So in this whole period the couple scarcely saw each other, and the idea that they were working together on the theoretical notions Einstein was reporting in his letters doesn't bear serious consideration. Rather, what the letters give witness to is Einstein's reporting his work on physics, as indicated in his letter of 10 April 1901: "So today I'm going to give you a detailed report of what I am up to, because I see that you enjoy it" (Renn and Schulmann 1992, Letter 27).


Finally on this topic, Frize writes: "Several of the letters indicate that Mileva was a collaborator on Einstein's research on the theory of relativity", though the only one from which he cites is that dated 27 March 1901 in which he wrote: "I will be so happy and proud when we can bring our work on relative motion to a successful conclusion" (emphasis added).


It is unsurprising that Frize fails to cite the other letters supposedly indicative of Marić collaborating on this topic, as they singularly fail to do so. Against this one instance of Einstein's using "our" in relation to the electrodynamics of moving bodies, there are half a dozen letters in which Einstein writes explicitly about his ideas: For example:

"I also wrote to Professor Wien in Aachen about my paper on the relative motion of the luminiferous ether against ponderable matter…" (28 September 1899)

"I'm busily at work on an electrodynamics of moving bodies, which promises to be quite a capital piece of work." (17 December 1901)

"I spent all afternoon at [Professor] Kleiner's telling him my ideas about the electrodynamics of moving bodies…" (19 December 1901)

"I want to get down to business now and read what Lorentz and Drude have written about the electrodynamics of moving bodies." (28 December 1901)

And to Marcel Grossman:

"A considerably simpler method of investigating the relative motion of matter relative to luminiferous ether that is based on ordinary interference experiments has just sprung to my mind…" (6? September 1901: Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 122)


As Stachel writes at the conclusion of a detailed examination of this issue:


In summary, the letters to Marić show Einstein referring to his studies, his ideas, his work on the electrodynamics of moving bodies over a dozen times (and we may add a couple more if we include his letter to Grossmann), as compared to one reference to our work on the problem of relative motion. In the one case where we have a letter of Marić in direct response to one of Einstein's, where it would have been most natural for her to respond to his ideas on the electrodynamics of moving bodies, we find the same response to ideas in physics that we find in all her letters: silence. (Stachel 2002, p. 36.)


As already noted above, the background is one in which the couple were separated with little prospect of their being together in the immediate future. Highfield and Carter quote the whole paragraph from which Frize takes the relevant quotation, one in which Einstein is seeking to reassure Marić of his continuing love, observing: "By italicizing the key sentence, one shows how it sat marooned, not in one of Einstein's many passages of close scientific argument, but amid an outpouring of reassurance that his love for Mileva remained absolute despite their separation" (1993, p. 72). Taking all of the evidence into account, the much-quoted sentence highlighted by Frize does not, as he contends, show that Marić collaborated on special relativity, which epoch-making theory in any case was not formulated by Einstein for another four years.[5]


I shall now return to Frize's statement (p. 284):


His admiration for Marić's mathematical skills in their early years together at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule was made evident when he later admitted to Mileva's brother Miloš, and to several Serbian intellectuals: "I need my wife. She solves all the mathematical problems for me" (Barnett 1998, p. 164). Mileva may have solved many mathematical problems for Albert, but if so, her work was never recognized formally in any of his papers.


Frize cites Barnett's unpublished doctoral thesis for the quotation allegedly coming from Einstein. He writes that Einstein said this to Mileva's brother Miloš, without any investigation of the original source to check on its reliability. The actual source of the quotation is Trbuhović-Gjurić (1998, p. 93), where the author quotes Dr Ljubomir-Bata Dumić as having written (presumably to the author) the statement in question. There is no indication of how Dumić gained this information. As we have already seen, Einstein was more than competent at the mathematics he required for his theoretical work at that stage of his career (when he was awarded his Ph.D. in 1905 he was commended for his mathematical perspicacity in handling the difficult mathematical problems involved [Collected Papers, vol. 1, doc. 31]), whereas Marić's mathematical achievement at Zurich Polytechnic was unimpressive. So the claim in question is suspect for that reason alone.


Trbuhović-Gjurić interviewed several friends and acquaintances of the Marić family in the 1960s, and obtained their (often third or fourth hand) reminiscences, hardly likely to be reliable some sixty years after the supposed events. This same Dr Dumić is quoted by Trbuhović-Gjurić as writing:


We raised our eyes towards Mileva as to a divinity, such was her knowledge of mathematics and her genius… Straightforward mathematical problems she solved in her head, and those which would have taken specialists several weeks of work she completed in two days… We knew that she had made [Albert], that she was the creator of his glory. She solved for him all his mathematical problems, particularly those concerning the theory of relativity. Her brilliance as a mathematician amazed us. (1988, p. 93, my translation.)


The contrast between this and Marić's actual mathematical accomplishments when she went beyond high school level mathematics is stark, and the terms in which Dumić exalts her prowess does nothing to add to her credibility. This is especially the case as she specifies the theory of [special] relativity in her remarks. But the mathematics in that 1905 paper would not stretch any competent physics undergraduate, and had effectively been reached by Einstein by the time he was sixteen. (As Jürgen Renn remarks: "If he had needed help with that kind of mathematics, he would have ended there." [Quoted in Highfield and Carter 1993, pp. 114-115.]) The only possible way that Einstein could have said anything like the sentences quoted by Frize above supposedly to Mileva's brother Miloš is if he had said it as a throwaway joke, though the evidence he ever said it at all is thin.


Perhaps even more dubious is this passage from Frize:


Mileva and Albert married in January 1902. She may have thought that she had chosen well, but did she choose wisely? Albert, for his part, was certain that he had chosen both wisely and well, and wrote to Mileva's father (as quoted in Troemel Ploetz 1990, p. 418):


I didn't marry your daughter because of the money, but because I love her, because I need her because we are both one. Everything I have done and accomplished I owe to Mileva, she is my genial source of inspiration, my protective angel against sins in life and even more so in science. Without her I would not have started my work, let alone finish it.


This expression of love for, and reliance on, Mileva was not recognized by Albert later, when he had become universally famous for his work on the theory of relativity. There is little evidence that Mileva was ever named as co-author on any of the papers they worked on together.


As an example how further errors creep into an already dubious story, note that neither Troemel-Ploetz, nor Trbuhović-Gjurić in the original book from which she quotes (1988, p. 94), say that Einstein wrote the quoted words. According to Trbuhović-Gjurić, Marić's father Miloš recounted to his son and some friends of the latter that when he visited the Einsteins in Bern for the first time, he had brought a gift of 100,000 Austro-Hungarian crowns. (Trbhuovic-Gjuric does not place the year of the supposed event, though from its place in her book it was early in the couple's married life. Krstić places it in 1904, shortly after the birth of Hans Albert [2004, pp. 103-104].) It was then that Einstein, when turning down the gift, supposedly spoke the above quoted words to Miloš Marić. Leaving aside that there doesn't seem to be any authenticated evidence of Marić's father visiting in 1904, the notion that Einstein would have said at that early date that without Marić he would not have finished his work is absurd. It is characteristic of Frize's account that he seems uninterested in considering the reliability, indeed credibility, of such accounts passed on through the generations in the Marić family hometown of Novi Sad, Serbia (aptly described by Highfield and Carter as "hometown folklore" [1993, p. 110]). That he mistakenly ascribes the quotation to a letter written by Einstein also implicitly evades the awkward question of how anyone could provide a verbatim report of several sentences supposedly said by Einstein as reported by Miloš Marić to a group of people in 1904, some sixty years before Trbuhović-Gjurić conducted her researches among friends and acquaintances of the Marić family.


It remains only to note some factual errors. Frize writes: "Mileva Marić had been only the fifth woman to be accepted into the prestigious male-dominated Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule [ETH, formerly Zurich Polytechnic], which was a remarkable achievement" (p. 279). But, as Trbuhović-Gjurić records, Marić was the fifth woman to be admitted to section VIA of the Polytechnic teacher training programme, that specialising in mathematics and physics (Trbuhović-Gjurić 1988, p. 35). There were considerably more women in the section VI as a whole (including teacher training for non-mathematical science subjects), and no doubt many more in the Poytechnic degree courses. John Stachel reports that women had been graduating at the Polytechnic for decades by the time Marić took her diploma examinations (Stachel 2002, pp. 30, 33). Frize may have obtained the erroneous statement from Barnett's doctoral thesis, where it is stated twice (pp. 161, 209). It is also stated in Gabor 1995 (p. 6), from which book Frize also quotes. Here we have another example of an error being recycled because the author fails to check original sources.


Frize writes (p. 274) of the period 1890-1894: "During [Marić's] last year at the school [the Gymnasium at Šabac, Serbia], she was the only female student granted permission to study physics alongside the male students, and showed she belonged by achieving the highest grade ever awarded by the school in mathematics and physics". Where he gets this latter claim is a mystery; it is not reported in either of the biographical works on Marić, by Truhovic-Gjuric (1988, pp. 26-28) and Krstić (2004, p. 30). (The examinations in question were not taken at the Gymnasium, but in 1894 when Marić was by then attending the Royal High School in Zagreb, Croatia.)


A minor error occurs on this same page where Frize writes that in the spring of 1896 Marić enrolled at the Medical School at the University of Zurich but "she suddenly dropped medicine, and in the fall of 1897 she transferred to the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule to study mathematics and physics". In fact Marić attended the Medical School only for the summer semester in 1896 before enrolling at the Polytechnic in October 1896. (Frize also fails to mention that the programme for which she enrolled at the Polytechnic was for training teachers of mathematics and physics in secondary schools.)


Frize writes that


When [Einstein] received the Nobel Prize for Physics, in 1922, he agreed as part of the divorce settlement that the prize money be given to his wife in full. It has been suggested that the reasons for Albert's generous payment were to ensure that Mileva would not cause him trouble by asking him for money, and to clear his conscience over his leaving Mileva for another woman and turning his back on his sons.


The actual facts are that the terms of the divorce agreement (12 June 1918) stipulated that the anticipated Nobel Prize money would be deposited in a Swiss bank trust fund in Marić's name, with the proviso that she had no authority over the capital without Einstein's consent, but that she had free access to the interest. In the event of her death or remarriage the trust fund monies would go to their two boys. (Collected Papers, vol. 8, doc. 562.) Rather than the speculative notions put forward by Frize, the straightforward reason for this settlement is that Marić was refusing Einstein's wish for a divorce, and he proposed it in order to overcome her resistance (Letter, 31 January 1918, Collected Papers, vol. 8, doc.449). Moreover, it is not the case that Einstein "turned his back on his sons" at that time. Numerous letters in volume 8 of the Collected Papers testify to his desire to keep contact with his boys and to his interest in their activities. In the words of Highfield and Carter: "It remains remarkable how diligently Einstein strove to keep contact with his sons during 1915, for this was the year in which his scientific labours [on General Relativity] reached their fiercest intensity" (1993, p. 173).


Frize writes in the context of the credibility of parts of Trbuhović-Gjurić's book that it "was the first biography to mention that Albert and Mileva had had an illegitimate child which is now universally accepted as fact" (p. 284). However, this information was not in Trbuhović-Gjurić's original book (published in Serbian in 1969), but is contained in an editorial supplementary section (pp. 59-78) added to the 1988 German edition that, among other factual information, quotes profusely from the early correspondence between Einstein and Marić. This had become available since it was first published in 1987 in volume 1 of the Einstein Collected Papers. (The letters had been discovered among papers originally in the estate of  Hans Albert Einstein in 1986 [Highfield and Carter 1993, pp. 279-281].)


Finally, there is one general point that must be discussed. Frize writes (pp. 287-288):


The controversy continues, and opinions on both sides require a certain amount of judgment and interpretation from biographers and other writers. Carol C. Barnett illuminates this difficulty when she writes (1998, p. 151): "Surprising and of more immediate importance is the fact that members or proponents of each critical camp are relying upon identical historical information, yet they arrive at differing opinions and interpretations." Why does the scientific community, in general, support her critics, most of whom are male? Perhaps the answer is a matter not only of who to believe but of what kind of people we choose to believe. If the authoritative voice of science is predominantly male, then the few female voices will find difficulty in being heard, or for that matter, valued or believed.


There are two issues here. First, is it the case that, as Barnett contends, that the respective proponents on each side rely upon identical historical information? Consider the quotation cited above from a 1901 letter of Einstein's purportedly showing that Marić was a collaborator on Einstein's special theory of relativity. Whereas proponents of this claim generally rely exclusively on this one sentence of Einstein's, without considering the context, or even taking account that it was written when he was far from formulating the special relativity principle that he only arrived at some four years later, Stachel and I have (independently) taken into account the whole of the evidence, including the several other letters from which it is clear that it was Einstein alone who was actually working on the problem of relative motion. (See Stachel 2002, pp. 31-38;  Esterson 2006a.) Again, the contention that Marić assisted Einstein with his mathematics is widely recycled by proponents of the collaboration thesis in ignorance of both the relatively straightforward mathematics Einstein used in his 1905 papers (especially the special relativity paper) and of his considerable competence at the conventional mathematics required. (This myth also requires a gross overstating of Marić's mathematical abilities beyond high school level as evidenced by the documentary record.)[6]


The latter claims derive entirely from assertions made in Trbuhović-Gjurić's book, and recycled in Troemel-Ploetz's much-cited 1990 article "Mileva Einstein-Marić: The Woman Who Did Einstein's Mathematics". They are almost entirely based on reminiscences obtained in the 1960s from friends and acquaintances of the Marić family in Nov Sad, treated as if this is straightforwardly factual information, though there is no way that either they, or the people from whom the stories presumably originated, could have had first hand knowledge. No account is taken of the well documented unreliability of memories, or of how stories become embellished as they are passed on, especially when interested parties are involved.


In his book Memory R. M. L. Hunter reports an experiment undertaken by two Cambridge psychologists who, without the knowledge of the participants, recorded a meeting of the Cambridge Psychological Society. Two weeks later they asked all who had attended to write down everything they could recall of the meeting. They found that some 42 percent of the recalled points were substantially incorrect, including happenings which had never taken place at all: "In short, what was recalled was not only fragmentary, but also distorted, and much was recalled which, in fact, had never happened." (Hunter 1964, pp. 160-161.) Yet statements in Trbuhović-Gjurić's book, and even supposedly verbatim accounts, obtained sometimes third hand (at least) two generations after the events are recycled as factual information in articles and book chapters by proponents of the collaboration thesis. They would do well to read historian Alberto A. Martínez's "Handling evidence in history: the case of Einstein's wife" (2005) on what constitutes reliable historical research.


Many proponents of the collaboration thesis argue, like Frize, Barnett and Troemel-Ploetz, that on such an issue, challenges to the various contentions are suspect by virtue of the fact that they (generally) come from men. But it is not a matter, as Frize glibly writes, of whom we choose to believe, but of an investigator having a genuine desire to ascertain the historical facts insofar as they can by ascertained by seeking out the sources of all the contentions and examining the whole of the evidence. The writings of the main proponents of the thesis are replete with factual errors and misconceptions (see my articles referenced below), and also display ignorance of relevant knowledge of the science involved. There is much recycling of claims on no more basis than that the author read it in a book, though it ought to go without saying, as Stachel has observed in a response to Walker and Troemel-Ploetz, that "bare assertions, particularly by interested parties, do not constitute proof of such assertions, even when these assertions are repeated in print, even in a book" (2002, p. 32). The notion that judgements can be made partly on the basis of the gender of the writer rather than on the level of meticulous scholarship undertaken is not only an abdication of responsibility for genuine examination of the evidence, it invites people to choose what account to believe regardless of the calibre of the research.




1. Trbuhović-Gjurić's reports (1988, p. 26) on Marić's end of year exam results at the high school in Zagreb in 1894 as follows: "Sie hatte im September 1894 die Schlussprüfung der siebten Klasse mit den besten Noten in Mathematik und Physik bestanden..."


This is generally reported as her having stated that Marić's grades in physics and mathematics were the highest in the class, but the German translation (from the original Serbian) appears to be ambiguous as to whether they were Marić's highest grades, or the highest in the class. In his 2004 book Krstić writes (p. 30) of these same examinations only that "Her best grades were in mathematics and physics."


2. For an examination of the many errors and misconceptions in Gabor's chapter on Mileva Marić on which Frize relies heavily, see Esterson (2007).


3. In the section of Gabor's chapter which Frize's cites on this material, characteristic of her poor historical research is the fact that she purports to demonstrate the superiority of Marić's academic attainments over Einstein's with the statement that Marić "passed the difficult ETH entry examination" which "Einstein had failed the first time he took it" (Gabor 1995, p. 15). In fact Marić did not take the Zurich Polytechnic examinations as she had obtained her Matura in the spring of 1900 (though she was required to sit the mathematics component for which she obtained a very moderate grade), Einstein did not take them a second time as by then he had also obtained his Matura, and Gabor omits mentioning that when he failed in 1894 he was only sixteen but nevertheless obtained excellent grades in physics and mathematics.


4. Frize appears to have used Barnett (1998) for this passage in his book, as she also misspells Thomson. Not only does Barnett fail to register (pp. 148, 194-195) that the two letters in relation to the Thomson photoelectric effect have nothing to do with Einstein's extra-curricular researches, she compounds this misconception with a scientifically illiterate footnote to her first mention of it (pp. 148, 170 n. 15):


The Thompson effect deals with the discovery and works of Joseph John Thompson. In 1899 he discovered the electron and two years later he announced that the atom had been split by removing an electron… The divisibility of atoms became essential to understanding radioactivity. (Pais 85-86, Subtle is the Lord.)


This is no doubt intended to impress on the reader the far-reaching importance of the fact that Marić and Einstein were undertaking investigations relating to the Thomson effect for their respective dissertations. However, leaving aside that the first sentence is incoherent, Barnett conflates the discoverer of the Thomson effect (William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin), with J. J. Thomson, so what she writes about here has no connection with what the couple were investigating for their respective dissertations.  


5.  For Stachel's detailed examination of the claims based on the sentence in question, see Stachel 2002, pp. 31-38.


6.  Frize relies heavily on Barnett's unpublished dissertation, yet it is replete with errors, misconceptions and omissions (some noted above).  To take a few more examples, Barnett purports to have found an example of different presentations of the same factual information, indicating misstatements by one or other party in relation to Einstein's and Marić's respective grades at Zurich Polytechnic (pp. 2-3).  But when we turn to the footnote supposedly demonstrating this (p. 14) we find that Barnett has conflated end-of-semester coursework grades with intermediate and final diploma grades, which completely vitiates her contention. (In fact Barnett does not cite the grades from the two diploma examinations at all, an odd omission given that it was her very poor grade in mathematics in the 1900 final examination that was the reason for Marić's failure to gain a teaching diploma.)


Barnett's purports to find a contradiction in Gerald Holton's references to Marić's mathematical abilities, recording that at one point he stated that "It is reported she got top grades in physics and mathematics", and at another writing of her "failing her exams because she 'was not good enough in mathematics' (Emphasis by CB) (Holton, Physics Today [August and September 1994])." But the first is a reference to Marić's grades at high school two years before she entered Zurich Polytechnic, whereas the second accurately describes her grade of 2.5 (scale 1-6) in the mathematics part of the 1900 final diploma examinations. Barnett, like many writers on this issue, fails to appreciate that a student may excel at high school mathematics, yet find university mathematics more challenging, as Marić evidently did, judging by her generally moderate grades in mathematical topics throughout her time at the Polytechnic. (At one point [pp. 153-154] Barnett purports to illustrate the dubiousness of "members of the physics community" questioning Marić's mathematical abilities on the basis of a friend of Marić's (as reported to Trbuhović-Gjurić in the 1960s) saying that she became "the best scholar" when she entered the first class at the Novi Sad high school in 1886-87, i.e., when she was twelve years old!)


Barnett's whole discussion of the question of Marić's mathematical abilities (pp. 160-166) leaves much to be desired. For instance, she uses the Zurich Polytechnic coursework grades to supposedly demonstrate that they indicate "a high level of proficiency" for both Marić and Einstein, explicitly using them to challenge the questioning of her mathematical proficiency (p. 162).  Yet Marić's coursework average grade for mathematical topics was a moderate 4.5, and (not recorded by Barnett) her final diploma mathematics grade was a very poor 2.5. Barnett then cites Troemel-Ploetz's 1990 article (referenced below) to purportedly demonstrate Einstein's limited mathematical abilities, an article full of misconceptions on this and several other topics. See Esterson 2006b, Who Did Einstein's Mathematics? A Response to Troemel-Ploetz




Barnett, C. C. (1998). "A Comparative Analysis of Perspectives of Mileva Marić Einstein." Doctoral dissertation, Florida State University.

Clark, R. (1971). Einstein: The Life and Times. New York: World Publishing Company.

Einstein, A. (1956). Autobiographische Skizze (1954). In C. Seelig (ed.), Helle Zeit, Dunkle Zeit. In memoriam Albert Einstein. Zurich: Europa-Verlag, 1956.

Einstein, A. (1987). The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. Vol. 1. Princeton University Press. (Vol. 5, 1995; Vol. 8, 1998.)

Fölsing. A. (1997). Albert Einstein. New York: Viking Penguin.

Frize, M. (2009). The Bold and the Brave: A History of Women in Science and Engineering. University of Ottawa Press.

Frize, P. (2009). "Profiles of Three Women." In The Bold and the Brave: A History of Women in Science and Engineering. University of Ottawa Press, pp. 259-298.

Gabor, A. (1995). Einstein's Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth Century Women. New York: Viking-Penguin.

Highfield, R. and Carter, P.  (1993). The Private Lives of Albert Einstein. London: Faber & Faber.

Holton, G. (1996).  Einstein, History, and Other Passions. Harvard University Press. Chapter 8: "Of Physics, Love, and Other Passions: The Letters of Albert and Mileva", pp. 171-193.

Hunter, I. M. L. (1964). Memory. Harmondsworth. Middlesex: Penguin Books.

Krstić, D. (2004). Mileva & Albert Einstein: Their Love and Scientific Collaboration. Radovljica: Didakta.

Martínez, A. A. (2005). Handling Evidence in History: The Case of Einstein's Wife, School Science Review, March 2005, 86 (316), pp. 49-56.

Pais, A. (1982). Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein. Oxford University Press.

Popović, M. (2003). In Albert's Shadow: The Life and Letters of Mileva Marić, Einstein’s First Wife. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Renn, J. and Schulmann, R. (eds.) (1992). Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić: The Love Letters. Trans. by S. Smith. Princeton University Press.

Stachel, J. (1989). ). Letter, Physics Today, February 1989, pp, 11-13.

Stachel, J. (2002). Einstein from ‘B' to ‘Z'. Boston/Basel/ Berlin: Birkhäuser.

Response to Senta Troemel-Ploetz and Evan Harris Walker: pp. 31-38.

Stachel, J. (ed.) (2005). Einstein's Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics. Princeton University Press. Stachel's Refutation of the Joffe story: pp. liv-lxxii.

Talmey, M. (1932). “The Relativity Theory Simplified And the Formative Period of its Inventor.” New York: Falcon Press.

Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1988). Im Schatten Albert Einsteins: Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Marić. Bern: Paul Haupt.

Trbuhović-Gjurić, D. (1991), Mileva Einstein: Une Vie (French translation of Im Schatten Albert Einsteins: Das tragische Leben der Mileva Einstein-Marić). Paris: Antoinette Fouque.

Troemel-Ploetz, D. (1990). "Mileva Marić-Einstein: The Woman Who Did Einstein's Mathematics." Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 13, no. 5, pp. 415-432.

Walker, E. H. (1989). Letter, Physics Today, February 1989, pp. 9-11.
Walker, E. H. (1991). Letter,  Physics Today, February 1991, pp. 122-124.




Esterson, A. (2006a). Mileva Marić: Einstein's Wife

Esterson, A. (2006b). Who Did Einstein's Mathematics? A Response to Troemel-Ploetz

Esterson, A. (2006c). Critique of Evan Harris Walker’s Letter in Physics Today, February 1991.

Esterson, A. (2007). Critique of the chapter on "Mileva Marić Einstein" in Andrea Gabor's 1995 book Einstein's Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth-Century Women.


Allen Esterson

February 2012