A halftone reproduction of an etching of Einstein.

Einstein: The Shy Genius

By Elizabeth Fee

A line drawing of Einstein in profile.
Albert Einstein
National Library of Medicine

Once Einstein became famous, people would stop him in the street and cry out: “Professor Einstein!” He would say; “Oh yes, many people tell me I look just like him,” and walk on by. After his Nobel Prize, he was constantly being asked to speak in public and accept various awards. He refused all such invitations, saying that he just wanted to be left alone to do his work. As one observer commented: “Reporters and correspondents of newspapers throughout the world were conducting a regular siege upon the modest and defenseless scientist. What did it matter to them that neither they nor their readers could possibly understand his formulae and deductions? They begged for interviews, they demanded elucidations, they clamored for the latest treatise to cable it—Greek and all—to America. The wizard had waved his wand again and, without comprehending his magic, the world was stirred by a new vision of the marvelous.” Einstein himself was dismissive of his fame: “The only way to escape the corruptible effect of praise is to go on working.” Passionate about his work, he described it as “akin to that of the religious worshiper or the lover; the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.”

Growing up in Germany, Einstein had written his first scientific paper at the age of 16. Around that time, his family moved to Milan, but left their son at a boarding house in Munich to complete his schooling. Alone and miserable, he was also horrified by the prospect of being conscripted into the army. He managed to get out of school with a doctor’s note, and promptly made his way to his parents in Milan. They were understandably upset that their son was a high school dropout and a draft dodger.

Einstein finished high school in Milan and graduated in 1896 at the age of 17. To avoid military service, he now renounced his German citizenship. As a pacifist, he was willing to “fight for peace.” Attending the Zurich Polytechnic Institute for a course in teaching mathematics and physics, he frequently cut classes to study on his own. His attitude may be inferred from several comments, as, for example, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” At the Polytechnic, he fell in love with a fellow physics student, Mileva Marić, and they married in 1903.

A halftone reproduction of an etching of Einstein.
Albert Einstein by Julius C. Turner
National Library of Medicine #B06569

When he graduated, Einstein applied for several teaching positions, but was turned down each time. He took the best job he could find, at the Swiss patent office, where he became “Technical Expert Class 3” responsible for examining patent applications. In 1905, he received his PhD degree from the University of Zurich and, in that year, his “annus mirabilis,”(miracle year), he published four brilliant papers, on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of mass and energy—the famous E=mc2 equation. These established his reputation as a leading scientist, and he was appointed in turn, lecturer at the University of Bern, associate professor at the University of Zurich, full professor at the University of Prague, professor at the University of Zurich, director of the Wilhelm Institute for Physics, and professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

With two small children, a husband who constantly worked and traveled, and a limited income, Einstein’s wife, Marić, became depressed. When they divorced in 1919, Einstein promised her that, if he ever won the Nobel Prize, he would give her all the money. This must have seemed an unlikely promise, but two years later, Einstein did indeed win the Nobel Prize and Marić no longer needed to worry about finances.

In 1928, Einstein suffered a severe heart attack and his inquisitive interest in world affairs nearly drove his physician, a world renowned New York heart specialist, frantic. Finally, in desperation, the physician memorized one hundred and fifty funny stories and told them to his celebrated patient. . . the physician said, “I have to tell him funny stories in self-protection . . . when I found that he liked jokes, I memorized them to stop his constant flow of questions.”

Once recovered, Einstein indulged in his love of travel, lecturing to enthusiastic crowds wherever he went. In 1930, he traveled to America and met intellectuals, politicians, and movie stars. He and Charlie Chaplin immediately became friends. Later, when Einstein was staying with the Chaplins, he started playing the piano and writing notes. He went upstairs to his study and did not emerge, so Charlie’s wife brought up his food. After two weeks, Einstein came downstairs with two pages bearing his general theory of relativity.

In 1933, as the Nazis were coming to power, Einstein realized that he could not live in Germany. The Nazis had attacked him for his “Jewish physics” and a Nazi journal had published his image on the front cover, with the words “not yet hanged.” Wisely, Einstein decided to accept a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. It quickly became a center for physics in America, and an academic shelter for scientists fleeing Nazi Germany.

A telegram from Einstein to the Emanuel Libman Birthday Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC Oct. 31, 1942.
A telegram in the Emanuel Libman Papers, 1944.
National Library of Medicine

At the Institute Einstein tried to develop a unified field theory that could explain both electromagnetic and gravitational forces. At Princeton, and throughout his life, he also wrote copious letters to his friends and colleagues. Some of these letters are in the The Emanuel Libman Papers in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine, and many others are in the Einstein Archives at Hebrew University. Einstein was always proud of being Jewish, and never more so than when the Nazis took over his home country.

A clip from a newspaper of a photograph of Einstin holding a child on this lap.
Albert Einstein holding a child on his lap, April 19, 1955.
NLM #B06570

Knowing that the Nazis were intent on developing an atomic bomb, Einstein and two other physicists wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning that Germany might soon make atomic weapons, and that Hitler would have no hesitation in using them. Alarmed, Roosevelt invited the physicists to the White House, and soon after, announced the Manhattan Project to produce an atomic bomb. The group succeeded, and the bombs destroyed much of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Einstein, a devoted pacifist, was horrified, but he felt that this had been the only means to stop Nazi aggression. After the war, Einstein became an advocate for nuclear disarmament. He served as chair of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. He spoke about the terrible devastation of atomic warfare and argued against the use of force.

Einstein always advocated equality and social justice. In an essay, “Why Socialism?” he argued that socialism was the only way to attain economic equality but warned that in a socialized economy, it was essential to protect individual rights. Because of his advocacy of pacifism and socialism, J. Edgar Hoover called him an “extreme radical” with possible “communist associations” and denied him a security clearance.

In 1955, at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Einstein suffered the rupture of an abdominal aortic aneurism. He refused surgery saying, “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.” He died the next morning.

The Emanuel Libman Papers are available through the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Program at the National Library of Medicine. Dr. Emanuel Libman (1872–1946) received his medical degree from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and was associated with the Mount Sinai Hospital as a pathologist, and attending and consulting physician. Among the correspondents are  Maude Abbott, Ludwig Aschoff, Ephraim M. Bluestone, Sarah Bernhardt, Albert Einstein, Abraham Flexner, Abraham Jacobi, Charles and William Mayo, Hideyo Noguchi, William Osler, M. Rachmilewitz, Humphry Rolleston, and William H. Welch.

Elizabeth Fee is Chief Historian at the National Library of Medicine.


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