Albert Einstein is arguably the most famous and brilliant physicist of all time. In 1933, when he was 54, he held the prestigious title of tenured professor at the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Fortunately for him, when Adolf Hitler came to power, he was traveling to Belgium from the United States. He knew that Hitler would persecute him because he was Jewish, so he renounced his German citizenship and eventually became an American citizen and a professor at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. In 1939, he sent a letter to Franklin Roosevelt that specifically led to the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb that saved millions of lives by ending the war with Japan.
In 1921, Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and the number of his major discoveries in physics is beyond belief: Theory of Relativity, Theory of Brownian motion, Einstein field equations, Bose–Einstein statistics, Bose–Einstein condensate, Gravitational wave, Cosmological constant, Unified field theory, EPR paradox, modern photon theory, and many more.
Einstein died in 1955, at age 76, of a burst aortic aneurysm. When his aneurysm was diagnosed in 1948, there was no treatment for this condition, but in 1951, Dr. Michael Debakey, a young surgeon in Houston, developed an effective surgical procedure. If Einstein and his doctors had kept up-to-date, he could have traveled to Houston for a cure.
Now, more than 60 years after his death, images of his face and his formula, E=mc², are worth millions of dollars each year to Hebrew University of Israel, which owns the legal rights. They are the most-requested of the 100 million pictures handled by Corbis Corporation, the licensing giant owned by Bill Gates.
His Early Years
Einstein was born in Germany in 1879 to non-observant Ashkenazi Jews, and attended a Catholic elementary school from age five to eight. He then attended a secondary school in Munich that now bears his name. In 1895, at age 16, he failed the entrance examination to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich. He went to the Argovian cantonal school in Switzerland and stayed with the family of one of his teachers, Professor Jost Winteler. He fell in love with his professor’s daughter, Marie Winteler. At age 17, he passed the entrance exam and moved to Zurich to start classes at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School and Marie Winteler took a teaching job in Olsberg, Switzerland.
Many Women, Miserable Marriages
At Polytechnic, Einstein was immediately attracted to the only female classmate, Mileva Maric, because they were both interested in the same branches of abstract physics. Einstein received his teaching diploma in 1900, when he was 21, but Mileva failed her exams and did not receive her diploma. Two years later, Mileva went back to her parent’s home and gave birth to a daughter, Lieserl, and returned to Einstein without the child. Nobody knows what happened to the child, but apparently Einstein never saw her. In 1903, he married Mileva and one year later they had a son, Hans Albert Einstein. In 1910 they had another son, Eduard.
Einstein was a very cruel husband and treated Mileva more like a servant than a wife. In fact, he wanted to divorce her, but wrote to her that he would stay with her for the sake of his sons under the following conditions:
• She had to wash his laundry on time
• She was to bring his three meals a day on time in his bedroom
• She must keep his office neat and clean
• She must not be near him except for social reasons
• She must go on trips with him when he went out of town
• She was to have no sexual relations with him ever
• She was to talk to him only when he spoke to her
During Einstein’s marriage, his sister, Maja, married Paul Winteler, the brother of his old love, Marie. Einstein wrote letters to Marie that are available today, telling her that he had a miserable marriage and still loved her. In 1914, Einstein and Mileva separated. He moved to Berlin while she remained in Zurich with their sons. In 1919 they divorced after being separated for five years. His son, Eduard, was a diagnosed schizophrenic who died in an insane asylum.
Throughout his ill-fated marriage, Einstein appears to have had many lovers. In 1919, at age 40, he married Elsa Löwenthal after an affair that had gone on for at least seven years. Fortunately, they did not have any children; she was his first cousin on his mother’s side and his second cousin on his father’s side so any children would have been at high risk for genetic defects. In Einstein’s letters to Elsa, he mentions that he has had at least six girlfriends during their relationship. In 1933, she came with him to the United States but she died three years later from heart and kidney failure.
Visits to the United States
In 1921, 1930 and 1931, he visited the United States where he was honored as one of the world’s greatest scientists. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the pastor at New York’s Riverside Church, showed Einstein a full-size statue of him at the entrance to the church. He received a standing ovation from a crowd of 15,000 people at Madison Square Garden during a Hanukkah celebration. He then went to California where he was adored by Cal Tech students and faculty. He shared pacifist views with author Upton Sinclair, film star Charlie Chaplin and others. Einstein and his wife, Elsa, accompanied Chaplin to the formal premier of Chaplin’s film, City Lights.
In 1933, Einstein was on a ship returning to Belgium after his third visiting professorship at CalTech, when he found out that the Nazis had raided his cottage and stolen his sailboat. He and Elsa got off the ship and went to the German consulate, turned in their passports and renounced their German citizenship. This was a wise decision because the Nazis passed laws barring Jews from holding positions at universities and his books were burned. His cottage became an Aryan youth camp. A German magazine offered a $5,000 reward for killing him.
Einstein traveled to England where he met with Winston Churchill, Austen Chamberlain and former Prime Minister Lloyd George and asked them to help the German Jewish scientists. The always-brilliant Churchill immediately sent out requests to the English universities to start hiring them. Einstein also contacted other world leaders including Turkey’s Prime Minister, Ismet Inonu, to hire the escaping scientists. Turkey rescued more than 1000 scientists as a result of his efforts.
Emigration to Princeton
Einstein was offered British citizenship but decided instead to go to the United States to accept an invitation from Princeton University. There he helped to found the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, which became a haven for scientists fleeing Nazi Germany. This was surprising since Princeton and the other Ivy League schools had very few Jewish faculty members and had long held quota systems to limit Jewish students. At Harvard, President Lowell required applicants to submit photographs and answer questions on race, color, religious preference, maiden name of mother, birthplace of father, and changes that have been made since birth in the applicant’s name or that of his father. When objections were made to this direct discrimination, Harvard noted that most of the Jewish applicants came from large cities, so they quietly reduced admission of Jewish students by putting a quota on the number of students they would accept from New York, Boston and other large cities. Many other top universities followed the same practice. When I applied to Harvard in 1952, these quotas were just starting to be lifted.
More than Just a Physicist
Einstein had helped to establish the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1925. In 1939, Einstein and fellow physicists Leo Szilard, Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner urged President Roosevelt to try to build an atomic bomb. In 1952, Einstein turned down the offer to be President of Israel. He was a talented musician at both the piano and violin, playing some of Beethoven and Mozart’s works with members of the Zoellner Quartet. In the 1950’s, he played with the Juilliard Quartet in Princeton.
His Unnecessary Death
In 1948, at age 69, Einstein complained of severe pain in the upper abdomen. He had had intermittent upper abdominal pain for years, usually lasting 2-3 days and often accompanied by vomiting. Einstein was diagnosed with a grapefruit-size aortic aneurysm, a ballooning of the major artery in his belly. At that time, there was no treatment for this condition, which would burst and lead to instant death. He went to see Dr. Rudolph Nissen, one of the most famous heart surgeons in the world at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, who, like Einstein, was a Jew who escaped Hitler’s Nazi persecution. Dr. Nissen had developed many surgical procedures that were copied all over the world. Dr Nissen felt that cellophane was a tissue irritant that would cause scarring that might stop the increased swelling, so he wrapped the aneurysm in cellophane which kept Einstein alive for seven more years. Einstein recovered from the operation, but still suffered from repeated pain in his belly and back, which his doctors incorrectly diagnosed as chronic gall bladder disease. He published his last scientific paper in 1954 in the Annals of Mathematics.
On April 17, 1955, Einstein suffered terrible belly pain and was taken to the University Medical Center at Princeton for treatment. He refused surgery because he had been told years before that there was no curative treatment. However, four years earlier, in 1951, a brash young surgeon in Houston named Michael Debakey had published his ground-breaking cure of aneurysms with replacement of the ballooned artery with a Dacron sheath graft. He would have been available to treat the world’s greatest physicist, and Einstein could have traveled to Houston for a cure. However, the surgery was not being done at many other centers, and nobody in Princeton had any experience with the procedure. He died the next morning, on April 18, 1955. He had been preparing a speech for a television appearance commemorating the seventh anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel.
Debakey’s innovation is now a common surgical procedure. Dr. Debakey, the most famous surgeon in the world, had this surgery done on himself when he was 99 years old. Now every patient without a serious medical contraindication, who has an aortic aneurysm greater than 5cm, is a candidate for the surgery (Gynecol Obstet, 1990;170:455-458). Einstein would have been referred for surgery and probably been cured. The operative mortality rate is about five percent. People with aneurysms smaller than 5cm do not need surgery as it does not appear to improve long-term survival in these patients. Now a much simpler operation is available, in which a graft is inserted by way of the femoral artery and placed inside the aneurysm. Today, Dr. Nissen’s son, Dr. Steve Nissen, is head of thoracic surgery at the Cleveland Clinic and famous for showing that many heart attacks are caused by an improper diet that causes harmful bacteria in the colon to make a chemical that ends up as TMAO, one of the causes of aneurysms and heart attacks.
We Could Still Find Out What Caused Einstein’s Aneurysm
Ballooning of an artery in the belly can be caused by:
• Infectious diseases such as syphilis
• High blood pressure
• Cocaine or other recreational drugs
• Genetic weakness of arteries
We do not know why Einstein had the aneurysm, but his brain is still available for testing. If it showed that he had syphilis, we would know the direct cause of his death because syphilis is a known cause of abdominal aneurysms (Eur J Dermatol. July-August, 1999; 9(5):399-401). Einstein’s autopsy was done a few hours after he died. The pathologist at Princeton Medical Center, Thomas Stoltz Harvey, removed Einstein’s brain without permission, hoping that future research would be able to explain his incredible brilliance. The rest of his remains were cremated and his ashes were scattered. Einstein’s brain is now located at the Princeton University Medical Center. As far as I know, he was never tested for syphilis, even though he was an extensive womanizer and treatment was available.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com