Women in Science
In the absence of hard evidence, speculating on Maric's precise contributions to Einstein's work is not very fruitful. What is more important is that Mileva's life—and frustrated ambitions—serve as a metaphor for the struggle and prejudice that women scientists encountered well into the 20th century.
In the early 20th century, the prevailing view in the scientific world was that the laboratory was no place for a woman; it was a view that persisted long after women had first won the highest scientific honors, including the Nobel Prize. "If a woman has a special gift for the tasks of theoretical physics...personally, I do not think it right—nor do I consider it practical—to refuse her the chance and means of studying for reasons of principle," wrote Max Planck, the renowned physicist, in 1897. "On the other hand, I must keep to the fact that such a case must always be regarded just as an exception. Generally, it cannot be emphasized enough that nature herself prescribes to a woman her function as mother and housewife."
Forty years later, on the eve of World War II, when Hertha Sponer, a German-refugee physicist (who married the physicist James Franck after the war), was being considered for a full professorship at Duke University, Robert A. Millikan, a founder of the California Institute of Technology, tried (unsuccessfully) to block the appointment. In a letter to the president of Duke, who was trying to build up the university's physics department, Millikan wrote:
"In view of the fact that at least 95 percent of the ablest minds that are now going into physics are men....I should feel that my chance of building a very strong department would be better if I made my choices among the most outstanding of the National Research Fellows or other equally outstanding young men...we have developed in this country as yet no outstanding women physicists. ...I should therefore, expect to go farther in influence and get more for my expenditure if in introducing young blood into a department of physics I picked one or two of the most outstanding younger men, rather than if I filled one of my openings with a woman. Also, in the internal workings of a department of physics at a great university I should expect the more brilliant and able young men to be drawn into the graduate department by the character of the men on the staff, rather than the character of the women."
Duke did not heed Millikan's advice. Sponer would have a successful, thirty-year career at the university.
At the time that Millikan was writing against Sponer, Maria Goeppert Mayer, another German emigre and future Nobelist, was one of the few women scientists working at a U.S. university. Goeppert-Meyer was teaching quantum mechanics at Johns Hopkins—but without a salary.
Women scientists married to male scientists were routinely blocked from paid positions at universities. Nepotism rules—some official, some not—kept women from salaried academic posts. After Johns Hopkins, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, worked for close to two decades—first at Columbia Univeristy and later at the University of Chicago (where her husband, Joseph Mayer, a chemist, was employed)—mostly as an unpaid "volunteer"; in fact, Goeppert-Mayer did not receive an official, paid academic post until a few years before winning the Nobel Prize.
Thus, even if she had passed her exams, the birth of children and her marriage to Einstein would have sharply curtailed Mileva's chances at a career.
Most working women scientists never married. Yet, they had only a slightly easier time of it than their married counterparts. At some institutions women were not allowed to hold official positions at all, which is why even Lise Meitner, the long-time collaborator of Otto Hahn, worked for a time at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry without pay. (Hahn would go on to win the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission—an award that most scientists now agree should have been shared with Meitner.) Rosalind Franklin, the physical chemist whose x-ray photographs helped prove that the structure of DNA really was a double-helix, was often inaccurately described as an assistant to Maurice Wilkins who together with James Watson and Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA; Franklin and Wilkins were, in fact, peers.
Although the discovery of the double helix was a highly collaborative affair, Franklin, like most female scientists, had to endure the ostracism of her male colleagues. This is how James Watson described Franklin, ten years after her death, in his best-selling The Double Helix:
"By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. ... There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men. ... Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place. The former was obviously preferable because, given her belligerent moods, it would be very difficult for Maurice [Wilkins] to maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA. ... The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person's lab."
To add insult to injury, Watson and Crick's final breakthrough owed a great deal to the fact that Wilkins passed on Franklin's lab results without her knowledge or consent. Franklin died in 1958, at age 37, of ovarian cancer—very probably because of exposure to x-rays she took during the course of her research a few years before her three male collaborators were awarded the Nobel Prize. Her death made her ineligible to receive the prize.
Indeed, science during the early 20th century was increasing a collaborative enterprise, one at odds with the great-man theory of science. For example, Niels Bohr's Institute for Theoretical Physics (now known as the Niels Bohr Institute) was the setting of a unique collaboration among physicists from around the world who gathered around Bohr in Copenhagen, in the 1920s, and helped give birth to quantum mechanics. Similarly, while Goeppert-Mayer had worked on the fringes of the scientific community for decades before winning the Nobel prize, she had the good fortune to be educated at Gottingen—another nucleus of scientific collaboration—in the small circle of brilliant physicists that included Max Born, Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner.
Despite the many advances and contributions of women scientists in the 20th century, science remains a men's club and the great-man school of scientific discovery still holds sway. Science lore is rife with stories of the forgotten women behind great scientific advances. For decades, women have had their work "obscured and devalued by the ideology of scientific heroism," says Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at the University of California at San Diego.
Oreskes cites the example of Eleanor A. Lamson, an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory who was involved in some of the first efforts to measure gravity at sea, in the late 1920s, an enterprise that helped scientists develop a detailed model of the earth. The scientific expedition was conducted on board a navy submarine in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The male scientists were hailed as modern-day explorers, and featured in photos of the expedition aboard ship. Left out of the photo, the prizes, as well as the official state dinners held in honor of the scientists after the successful
completion of their work, was the sole woman on the team. Eleanor Lamson, who stayed on shore, was in charge of converting photographic records taken at sea into mathematical measurements of the acceleration of gravity. Writes Oreskes: "The rhetoric and imagery of heroic adventure could serve to engender public enthusiasm in a manner that the esoteric technical details...would not. Deliberately or not, this imagery left invisible the woman scientist on shore."
Even today, scientists go to great lengths to hide the human frailties of their professional heroes. Witness the decades-long effort to shield Sigmund Freud's reputation from any suggestion that he had an affair with his wife's younger sister. The recent discovery of hotel records that appear to prove that Freud shared a bedroom with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, during a holiday in Switzerland, in 1898, may finally put an end to efforts to whitewash his human weakness.
Yet, the notion that Freud's stature as a pioneer of psychoanalysis might in some way be diminished if his infidelity were to become known seems bizarre. Similarly, the recognition that Einstein shared a life of love and scientific dialogue with Maric, should in no way cloud his well-deserved reputation. Science, like life, is almost never neat and compartmentalized.
Mileva's story of love, thwarted ambition, and tragedy, deserves to be told. Not only does it shine a light on the life and thinking of Albert Einstein, one the great scientists of the 20th century. Her failure to achieve her professional dreams also helps us understand the formidable obstacles faced by aspiring women scientists—many of whom labored in obscurity—throughout the last century.