Before the general theory of relativity, before the Nobel Prize and worldwide fame, Albert Einstein was a 17-year-old student enrolled at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich.
There he met his first-wife-to-be, Mileva Maric—a brilliant young mind and the only woman in the mathematics and physics teaching diploma course. Their friendship soon blossomed into a romance, spurred on by a mutual passion for books, science, and physics.
Albert and Mileva’s relationship is marked down in history by its termination in a bitter divorce, but their earliest correspondence even before the marriage in 1903 shows that even though the couple exchanged intellectual musings about various scientific problems, Einstein was not immune to penning the sorts of embarrassing phrases young lovers have been sending each other for centuries. (Read about five ways Einstein was a regular guy.)
In the summer of 1900, the couple were separated while Einstein joined his family at a Swiss mountain resort in Melchtal. He wrote to her expressing deep longing:
“I long terribly for a letter from my beloved witch. I can hardly grasp that we will be separated for so much longer - only now do I see how frightfully much I love you!”
“When I’m not with you I feel as if I’m not whole. When I sit, I want to walk; when I walk, I’m looking forward to going home; when I’m amusing myself, I want to study; when I study, I can’t sit still and concentrate; and when I go to sleep, I’m not satisfied with how I spent the day.”
When they were reunited later that year, Mileva threw a lot of energy into supporting Albert’s academic work, while working to continue her doctorate degree (Einstein graduated in 1900). In March 1901, Einstein published his first scientific paper. Meanwhile two of Mileva’s closest friends had happily married. While Albert was looking for work prospects in Milan, he wrote to reassure Mileva in Zurich:
“...you need not envy any of your girl friends, because as long as I have any desire and strength in me, I will feel happy being yours, and you will be a little shrine to me. And my happiness is your happiness. If you knew what you mean to me, you wouldn’t envy any of your girl friends; because in all modesty I believe that you have more than all of them.”
In May 1901 it became clear that Mileva had fallen pregnant. Albert secured a two-month teaching position in the Swiss city of Winterthur, while Mileva remained in Zurich studying for her final examinations. Albert wrote to her, expressing full commitment to their future together:
“But now, rejoice in the irrevocable decision that I have made! I decided the following about our future: I will look immediately for a position, no matter how humble. My scientific goals and my personal vanity will not prevent me from accepting the most subordinate role. The moment I have obtained such a position I’ll marry you and take you to me without writing anyone a single word before everything has been settled.”
Unfortunately, Mileva failed to pass the final tests and did not receive a doctorate degree. She moved back to live with her parents in Novi Sad, Serbia, where she gave birth to the couple’s daughter sometime in January 1902. Albert had just secured his first permanent job, a clerk position in Bern, and a letter to Mileva captures the anxiety of a young father:
“But you see, it has really turned out to be a Lieserl, as you wished. Is she healthy and does she already cry properly? What kind of little eyes does she have? Whom of us does she resemble more? Who is giving her milk? Is she hungry? And so she is completely bald. I love her so much and I don’t even know her yet!”
The young couple finally married in January 1903 in Bern. What happened to Lieserl remains one of the biggest mysteries surrounding Einstein’s life, but it appears she tragically died of scarlet fever sometime in 1903.
Albert and Mileva went on to have two sons, and lived together until their separation in 1914.
You can read more of Einstein's correspondence, peruse his papers and even see his marriage certificate in the Princeton University digital archive.
Header image: Mileva and Albert in Prague, circa 1912.
Get a sneak peek at Academy Award-winning actor Geoffrey Rush and newcomer Johnny Flynn, as the older and younger Einstein, in National Geographic's global event series GENIUS, coming in April.