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Retrospectively Diagnosing Einstein with Asperger's Syndrome and the Dismal Failure of Debunking Myths

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In 2003, Simon Baron-Cohen, a world expert on autism, diagnosed Einstein posthumously with Asperger's syndrome. I think we cannot diagnose a dead person. Historians of science have fiercely objected to this trend of diagnosing deceased scientists by reconstructing from scant evidence, calling these diagnoses myths. Despite the historians' efforts at demolishing myths, Einstein has been constantly diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. I will stick my neck out and suggest in this paper that although historians' critique of Baron-Cohen and others includes debunking myths, it piggybacks on another myth that uses the following metaphors: a dull and socially adept Einstein who worked at Zurich, Prague, Berlin, and Princeton, an industrious scientist who earned his living through his work as a professor at the university; he had a special gift of friendship and collegiality, and he was deeply embedded in the academic community. These explanations do not make sense from the perspective of Einstein sitting in his office at Princeton, let alone Einstein sitting in the patent office. This perhaps explains the tendency of people to find counterclaims and myths more persuasive than historians' explanations which seem deeply problematic.
arXiv:2305.01308v1 [physics.hist-ph] 2 May 2023
Retrospectively Diagnosing Einstein with
Asperger’s Syndrome and the Dismal Failure of
Debunking Myths
Galina Weinstein
Reichman University, The Efi Arazi School of Computer Science, Herzliya;
University of Haifa, The Department of Philosophy, Haifa, Israel.
May 3, 2023
In 2003, Simon Baron-Cohen, a world expert on autism, diagnosed
Einstein posthumously with Asperger’s syndrome. I think we cannot di-
agnose a dead person. Historians of science have fiercely objected to this
trend of diagnosing deceased scientists by reconstructing from scant evi-
dence, calling these diagnoses myths. Despite the historians’ efforts at de-
molishing myths, Einstein has been constantly diagnosed with Asperger’s
syndrome. I will stick my neck out and suggest in this paper that although
historians’ critique of Baron-Cohen and others includes debunking myths,
it piggybacks on another myth that uses the following metaphors: a dull
and socially adept Einstein who worked at Zurich, Prague, Berlin, and
Princeton, an industrious scientist who earned his living through his work
as a professor at the university; he had a special gift of friendship and col-
legiality, and he was deeply embedded in the academic community. These
explanations do not make sense from the perspective of Einstein sitting
in his office at Princeton, let alone Einstein sitting in the patent office.
This perhaps explains the tendency of people to find counterclaims and
myths more persuasive than historians’ explanations which seem deeply
1 Introduction
With some apprehension, I lectured about retrospectively diagnosing Einstein
with autism (Asperger’s syndrome) at the conference ”Actually Autism” at
Ben-Gurion University. I was reluctant to meddle in Einstein’s private life. I
prefer to occupy myself with Einstein’s physics. I decided to get involved in this
topic and give this lecture because in trying to debunk myths, people simply
spread stigmas and prejudices about Asperger’s syndrome and twist Einstein’s
biography. This paper presents an adapted version of my lecture.
Why does everybody ask if Albert Einstein had Asperger’s syndrome? Be-
cause as I show in section 2 in 2003, Simon Baron-Cohen made a posthumous
diagnosis of Einstein, suggesting he showed many signs of Asperger’s syndrome.1
Baron-Cohen has argued that in several biographies of Einstein, it was written
that Einstein was a loner and could not speak until he was three. Baron-Cohen
did not base his retrospective diagnosis on historical medical records written
by physicians. He instead diagnosed Einstein based on fragments of evidence
mainly found in biographies.
As I discuss in section 3, several caveats exist in diagnosing a dead person
retrospectively. The danger with historical retro-diagnosis is that the details of
Einstein’s thinking process are not always precise, and we cannot extract a few
details from a biography. Indeed, as I show in this paper, medical historians
object to this practice saying that experts usually read a biography, extract
some passages dealing with medicine, and come up with a diagnosis. What is
even more insidious is that retro-diagnosis is made by people who are amateur
historians rather than historiographical-trained scholars. They, therefore, even
often draw on dubious sources to make historical diagnoses. Further, people
retrospectively diagnosing historical figures are susceptible to biases. A con-
troversy has erupted over the retro-diagnosis of Einstein. Historians of science
have fiercely objected to this trend of diagnosing deceased scientists retrospec-
tively by reconstructing from scant evidence. Despite the historians’ warning,
Einstein has been constantly diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
1Here is a list of signs of twice-exceptionality and Asperger’s syndrome in adults (including
the following but not limited to these): 1. Lack of cognitive empathy (finding it hard to
understand what others are thinking and feeling) and high empathic concern (desire to reduce
other people’s suffering and help them at your own expense). 2. Have the same daily routine
and get anxious if it changes. 3. Have meltdowns (tantrums), difficulty managing emotions
leading to outbursts, and may seem blunt and rude. 4. Are autodidacts (can teach themselves
just about anything). 5. May have weak short-term memory and very strong long-term
memory. May have a visual memory. 6. Can be atheistic or leave one religion and enter
another. 7. Have a spiky profile of strengths and weaknesses. 8. May have dropped out of
high school and returned later; may have unfinished or partial degrees. May have dropped out
of classes and not attended classes. 9. May have difficulty accepting criticism, stubbornness,
and fixation on topics. 10. Having problems expressing themselves clearly, and talking and
laughing very loudly, though there is little to laugh about. 11. Attention to details. 12.
Tends to burn bridges with people and may rebel against authority. 13. Considered a ”loner”
and needs more time than others to be alone; has difficulty socializing for extended periods;
wants to spend time socializing but is overstimulated by too many people. Does not just
focuses around the clock on a special interest that may involve the person’s career. Tends to
be easily overwhelmed by noises and in social situations and then withdraws to a quiet spot;
needs more time alone than others. 14. Has a high sense of justice and fairness and is too
honest. 15. On the one hand, they can be witty and sarcastic and tend to be more childish;
on the other, they can take things very literally and may not understand sarcasm, irony, or
humor from other people. May use humor to overcome social obstacles by playing tricks on
others. 16. Have a remarkable power of concentration and can focus for long periods of time
on the special interest without eating or drinking. 17. Unusual tolerance for unconventional
and unorthodox thinking and people. 18. May dress differently than their peers; often appear
eccentric; dress more for comfort than appearance. 19. May invent limericks and send them
to people they care about. 20. May feel things profoundly and experience intense emotions.
From: Autism Awareness Centre Inc.
In the end, in section 4, I show that there is a twist to the story. It turns
out that historians are susceptible to biases, precisely like any other scholar.
2 Baron-Cohen diagnoses Einstein
It all started when Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psy-
chopathology and a world expert on autism at Cambridge University, suggested
that Einstein might have shown signs of Asperger’s syndrome [3]. Baron-Cohen
supports his thesis by 1) quoting an account by Einstein’s son Hans Albert writ-
ten by Peter Michelmore in his biography of Einstein, Einstein, Profile of the
Man,2and 2) cherry-picking Einstein’s idiosyncratic habits from Roger Highfield
and Paul Carter’s book, The Private Lives of Albert Einstein.3Baron-Cohen
writes [3]:
Einstein was described as ”lonely and dreamy” as a child, with diffi-
culty in making friends. He was said to prefer ”solitary and taxing”
games, such as complex constructional play with blocks or making
houses of cards up to fourteen stories high. He would ”softly re-
peat every sentence he uttered—a habit he continued until the age
of seven.” He was still not considered fluent in speech at the age of
nine. He was also a loner: ”I’m not much with people,” he would
say. ”I do not socialize because social encounters would distract me
from my work and I really only live for that, and it would shorten
even further my very limited lifespan.”
This is almost verbatim what Highfield and Carter write in their book. 4
2Michelmore begins his book by saying: ”In February, 1962, I spent two days with Hans
Albert Einstein in his home overlooking San Francisco Bay. Hans Albert, fifty-seven, the older
son of Albert Einstein [...]. He had never discussed his father before with any writer, at least
not in depth. But he answered all my questions and waited while I wrote down the answers.”
3The authors base their stories on family members’ reports and memories of people who
knew Einstein.
4The first part of Baron-Cohen’s quotation is based on the following passage from Highfield
and Carter [20]:
By his description [to Bela Kornitzer], Einstein was a lonely and dreamy child
who did not easily find companions. He would avoid the rough-and-tumble
games when the children of relatives came to play in the Einsteins’ garden,
[...]. Besides assembling complicated constructions with his building blocks, he
made houses of cards up to fourteen stories high. [...] After starting to talk
comparatively late, he would softly repeat every sentence he uttered - a habit
that continued until he was seven. Even when he was nine he lacked fluency of
speech. The problem seems to have been as much a reluctance to communicate
as any inability to do so.
The second part of Highfield and Carter’s paragraph (”Besides assembling [...]”) is based
on Maja Winteler-Einstein’s (Einstein’s sister) biography of her brother [39].
The second part of Baron-Cohen’s quotation is based on the following passage from Highfield
and Carter [20]:
’I’m not much with people, and I’m not a family man.’ he told Salaman. ’I want
In his lecture “Scientific talent and autism: is there a connection?”, Baron-
Cohen merely repeats the arguments put forward in his previous text 5and
adds [4]:
So he wanted to be away from people and to only focus (some people
would say obsessionally) on the world of physics, and he also had a
strong interest in music when he wasn’t doing physics. And he said:
‘Music is a way for me to be independent of people.’ So you can see
that this was a man who didn’t want to spend time socializing and
instead wanted to focus on physics and music.
Again, Baron-Cohen cherry-picks quotations from Highfield and Carter [20]
and Michelmore [29].6
my peace. I want to know how God created this world.’
Esther Salaman was a young Jewish woman who interviewed Einstein in Berlin but pub-
lished the interview thirty years after Einstein died in 1955. And the full quote is [35]:
”I’m not much with people, and I’m not a family man. I want my peace. I
want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that
phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His
thoughts; the rest are details.”
The phrase ”God created the world,” so often repeated by Einstein, represents his religious
feeling that laws of nature could be formulated in the simplest form.
The quotation ”I do not socialize because social encounters would distract me from my
work” is taken from the following source. Einstein’s physician and friend Janos Plesch writes
On suitable occasions, one could also get from him [Einstein] an uninhibited
opinion about his immediate circle. During one such open phase during our
conversation, I told him his environment in America and asked, ’Who are your
friends in this small town?’ He replied
[. . . ] I do not socialize because social encounters would distract me
from my work and I really only live for that, and it would shorten
even further my very limited lifespan. I do not have any close friends
here as I had in my youth or later in Berlin with whom I could talk
and unburden myself. That may be due to my age. I often have the
feeling as if God has forgotten me here.
5In the case of Einstein, says Baron-Cohen,
”if you look at his childhood, he is described as being alone, having no friends,
and not being interested in mixing and socializing. Apparently, he was late to
talk, a language delay. Apocryphally he didn’t speak until he was five years old.
And even then, when he did start to speak, his speech showed echolalia. And
as an adult and as a distinguished scientist, he said: I do not socialize because
that would distract me from my work, and I really only live for that.’
6The quotation: ”[...] music is a way for me to be independent of people” was taken from
Michelmore [29]:
Einstein worked alone now, so music was the only way to get close to him. That
was how Manfred Clynes ”reached” Einstein. [...] Helen Dukas called to invite
me [Cylnes] to supper. [...] Einstein himself was rather jovial. Over the meal
of meat and vegetables and for two hours afterward, we talked about music. He
Barbara Wolff who had a long tenure at the Albert Einstein Archives and
is an editor in the Einstein Papers Project and Hananya Goodman write [40]:
Some of the characterizations of AS [Asperger’s syndrome] described
in the paragraph above actually apply well to the young Albert as
we know him from Maja’s and Max Talmey’s recollections.
Both Maja and Talmey describe a boy who took little interest in
boisterous games and, in general, in his peers, a boy who would con-
centrate patiently on elaborate constructions with building blocks
or playing cards, delve into books and tricky arithmetic problems
or play the violin. A sort of glass pane, as he called it many years
later, separated him from his fellow human beings. Had such ”social
phobia” then been classified as a personality disorder, and had his
parents and doctors felt the need to ‘heal’ the boy by making him
conform to some norm, Albert might not have become Einstein.
It seems that Wolff and Goodman agree with Baron-Cohen because, accord-
ing to the latter, Albert has become Einstein because he is an Asperger.
3 Historians object to diagnosing Einstein with
I think we cannot diagnose a dead person. Historians of science and medicine
have fiercely objected to Baron-Cohen’s retrospective diagnosis and have gener-
ally leveled criticism at clinicians, psychologists, and non-experts for retrospec-
tively diagnosing disorders and diseases in deceased scientists. Below I provide
the major objections made by historians:
1. Historians argue that people sometimes draw on dubious sources to make
retrospective diagnoses [26]. For instance, Daniela Caruso, professor of law
from Boston University, diagnosed Einstein with Asperger’s syndrome based on
a children’s book. She writes [8]:
Post-mortem diagnoses are doubtful, but Albert Einstein’s life story,
which begins with tales of delayed speech and abysmal performance
at school, suggests that the most accomplished scientist of all time
might have suffered from Asperger-like symptoms.
Caruso refers in a footnote to: “Don Brown, Odd Boy Out: Young Albert
Einstein (2004)” [8]. Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein is a children’s book
by Don Brown.
told me it was as important for him to improvise on the piano as it was for him
to work on his physics. ’It is a way for me to be independent of people,’ he said.
’And this is highly necessary for the kind of society in which we have.’
I am disappointed with the cheapening of history.
2. The retrospective diagnosis is a hobby of clinicians interested in history
who enjoy testing their diagnostic acumen on famous historical figures. The
physicians base their diagnosis on scant evidence, usually described in a non-
medical context. They uncover intriguing medical secrets in reports that belong
to an accessory section for incidental topics or letters to the editor in medical
journals. This practice raises ethical issues; in particular, the dead scientists
cannot say no. Retro-diagnosis can expose personal details that no one in Ein-
stein’s time could have known or understood. The retrospective diagnoses could
pose ethical problems or questions that, if revealed, may cause harm to the sci-
entist’s living descendants and relatives. The diagnosing physicians strongly
violate the principles of the medical profession because they give their retro-
spective opinion on a patient they have never seen nor examined [31], [26], [25].
Baron-Cohen replied to the above criticism in his lecture “Scientific talent
and autism: is there a connection?” [4]:
This biographical approach is very interesting, but [...] I’ve sug-
gested that this might be a very unreliable way to approach the
question because biographies are always fragmented. We only have
partial information about what the person was like, information that
has survived historically. The person isn’t here to speak up for them-
selves, so we don’t really know whether, if we saw them today alive,
they would meet the criteria of autism or Asperger’s syndrome. But
certainly, it’s pointing at the connection between great scientific tal-
ents and autism or Asperger’s”.
There are two problems here: the first problem is the impossibility of ver-
ifying or falsifying the retrospective diagnosis for obvious reasons: we cannot
examine and test the historical subject. And the second problem is ethical:
publishing a diagnosis of a patient with whom the medical expert never had a
physician-patient relationship and without consent.
One could argue that historical celebrities are immune from privacy protec-
tion because their lives are open to the public. And because they are long dead,
the subject of any potential harm no longer exists. But certain defenders of the
celebrity’s image and descendants of the historical figure might object to the
publication of a diagnosis that potentially stains the reputation of the historical
figure [31].
John Stachel gave a name to people who care about Einstein’s legacy (what
he considered as the staunchest defenders of his reputation); he called them
”keepers of the flame”.7
As a result of criticism, Baron-Cohen admitted there was a problem diagnos-
ing a person after his death because one needs the person’s consent. In his 2020
7Stachel writes in his book, Einstein From ’B’ to ’Z’ : ”I soon became aware of another
peril involving loss of boundaries: the danger of becoming a ‘keeper of the flame’ rather than
a seeker of the truth.” [37]
book, The Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention, Baron-Cohen
attenuates his argument [5]:
“Some hyper-systemizers,8in a range of fields, have been described
[by the mathematician Ioan Mackenzie James from Oxford Uni-
versity] as autistic. For example, [...] Albert Einstein and Henry
Cavendish in the field of physics have all been described [by James]
as autistic. In my view, it is unhelpful to speculate if someone
living or not might be autistic, since a diagnosis is only useful if
the person is seeking help and is struggling to function. Diagnosing
someone living or not on the basis of fragmentary biographi-
cal information is unreliable and arguably unethical since diagnosis
should always include the consent of the person and be initiated by
them. And from a scientific perspective, hyper-systemizing does not
automatically mean you’re autistic”.
Indeed, on January 17, 1927, Hugo Freund wrote to Einstein to ask if he
would allow himself to be psychoanalyzed ([12], Doc. 457). It is not known
if an answer was sent, but on the letter, in German in Einstein’s handwriting,
there is the following draft of a reply [12], Doc. 458; [14]: “I am sorry not to be
able to comply with your request, as I would very much like to remain in the
darkness of not having been analyzed.” In other words, Einstein refused to be
diagnosed and psychologically analyzed. Notwithstanding that, Baron-Cohen
and others have retrospectively diagnosed Einstein.
But in the above text, Baron-Cohen tries to shrug off the diagnosis of
Einstein with Asperger’s syndrome, saying that James described Einstein and
others as autistic. In 2012, Baron-Cohen went so far as to publish a paper
with several Cambridge University students having Asperger’s syndrome and
write: “Einstein, Mozart, Newton, Wittgenstein, and others (predominately
male, white, and deceased) are identified posthumously with AS and brilliance”
[19]. This sentence is disturbing because it insinuates that the brilliant people
are predominantly white males. Baron-Cohen and his students intertwine two
diagnoses - Asperger’s syndrome and brilliance - into white males.
3. Let us move on to the third argument. Historical diseases and condi-
tions must be interpreted in their historical context. Retrospective diagnosis is
anachronistic because people try to diagnose a disease or disorder of the past
in contemporary terms. This is called ”anachronistic diagnosis.” Critics of clin-
icians making retro-diagnosis say this kind of diagnosis can be misleading.
First, medical experts arrive at a diagnosis of a historical figure using modern
diagnostic criteria; they reason that if historical figures had all these symptoms,
then they could have had these specific conditions. But in the past, people had
different habits and lifestyles than we do [31]. Hence, we should investigate
social diagnosis, i.e., the name that people in the past allocated to a condition
[13]. If the social circumstances allowing us to perceive autism did not exist
8Hyper-systemizing is part of the cognitive style of autistic people. [6]
before some point relatively early in the twentieth century, then to what extent
can we say the condition existed previously? [28]
Second, medical knowledge itself changes over time. Writing historical pa-
pers on famous patients is problematic because clinicians regard the level of
scientific knowledge at the time of writing but assess the course of an illness in
the past.9
For example, Temple Grandin is diagnosed with autism and has a Ph.D. in
animal science. She concludes, “Einstein had many traits of an adult with mild
autism, or Asperger’s syndrome.” And [18]:
As a child, Einstein had many of these traits. He did not learn to
speak until he was three. In a letter to a mother of an autistic child,
he admitted to not being able to learn to speak until late and that
his parents had been worried about it.
This passage is anachronistic. How does Grandin know that both the child
and Einstein were autistic? Children were not yet diagnosed as autistic in
Einstein’s lifetime.
4. Historians object to a retrospective diagnosis that does not provide new
medical knowledge. This is as opposed to research based on historical sources
that will help modern medical researchers understand the spread of diseases
around our planet during human evolution and help us plan for unexpected
health events. There are many good reasons to study diseases and disorders in
the past. For instance, epidemiological analysis of data from historical smallpox
outbreaks has helped appropriate authorities plan for possible outbreaks in the
future [30].
To this, clinicians have responded by saying that studying historical figures
might help to determine how prevalent autism was in previous generations [1].
But then historians try to rebut this claim - see objection 3.
Concerning autism in previous generations, let us return to Temple Grandin.
Grandin compares herself to Einstein: Like Einstein, I am motivated by the
search for intellectual truth.” She then further elucidates on this point [18]:
When he developed the theory of relativity, he imagined himself on
a beam of light. His visual images were vaguer than mine, and he
could decode them into mathematical formulas. My visual images
are extremely vivid, but I am unable to make the connection with
mathematical symbols. Einstein’s calculation abilities were not phe-
nomenal. He often made mistakes and was slow; but his genius lay in
being able to connect visual and mathematical thinking. Einstein’s
dress and hair were typical of an adult with autistic tendencies, most
of whom have little regard for social niceties and rank. When he
9For instance, the historical figure, Polish composer Fr´ed´eric Chopin was first (1899) di-
agnosed as having tuberculosis; then, in 1961, allergic conditions and valvular stenosis were
offered as a better explanation for his condition. In 1987 he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis;
in 1994, other genetic defects were suggested, such as alpha-1-antitrypsin-deficiency [25].
worked at the Swiss patent office, he sometimes wore green slippers
with flowers on them”.
The above passage abounds in errors. But I nevertheless want to raise two
comments on this passage:
First, the people purporting to compare themselves to Einstein fail to men-
tion that his disheveled exterior reflected his inner humility. As he once said:
”I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the
university president” [24]. This is typical of people with Asperger’s syndrome,
but by the same token, this behavior is also typical of humble people. Hence,
I suggest not comparing yourself to Einstein if only for the many things you
don’t know about him. You can’t know everything about Einstein because it is
impossible to read all the primary sources. And even if you manage to read all
that, many documents have gone missing, and there is always hope of finding
new lost letters, diaries, and manuscripts.
I will give you an example. Einstein once told Salaman: “Very few women
are creative. I should not have sent a daughter of mine to study physics. I’m
glad my wife doesn’t know any science, although my first wife did.” Grandin (a
female scholar), do you still want to compare yourself to Einstein? This might
be a slip of the tongue because Einstein admired several women and female
physicists and mathematicians of his time, e.g., the brilliant genius physicist
Marie Curie and genius mathematician Emmy Noether. Over the years, Einstein
made different statements that depended on the people he spoke with. He would
say one thing in the presence of distinguished scientists, cooperating in tributes
without questioning the narratives, and would say quite the opposite on other
occasions. Thus, I would be extremely careful when comparing someone to
Second, after Einstein’s rise to fame, Max Fl¨uckiger wrote in his book Ein-
stein in Bern that Einstein often appeared in green slippers trimmed with flow-
ers at work. The patent office officials called him The man with the green
slippers.” A colleague also recalled that Einstein showed up at the patent office
one day with a saw and proceeded to shorten the legs of his chair because it
was not adjustable and was too high for him [17]. Abraham Pais described
Fl¨uckiger’s book as containing several reproductions of rare documents about
Einstein’s younger days. But ”The text contains numerous inaccuracies” [32].
In other words, Fl¨uckiger concocted the above stories out of things that never
5. Historians argue that it is often unclear how a highly specific diagnosis
would make any difference in the scholarship of the historical figure in question
[31]. It is asked: what is the objective of retrospectively diagnosing Einstein?
What goals does it serve? What justifies the retrospective diagnosis of historical
figures? What is the reason modern researchers retrospectively diagnose a his-
torical figure as autistic? Does the diagnosis of Einstein as autistic deliver new
medical insight into autism? Does it help us understand how Einstein created
the theory of relativity and how he arrived at his significant discoveries?
Ioan James writes [23]: ”In the case of Einstein, we can conclude that he did
have Asperger’s syndrome.” James has further stated: ”Although it seems to
be widely accepted that Einstein had the syndrome, none of the many detailed
biographies mentions this” [22]. First, such a diagnosis does not make any
difference in the scholarship of Einstein and the pathway to his theories. Second,
not only do none of the ”biographies mention this,” several biographies even try
to denounce it, as I show in the next section, claiming it is an utter myth.
4 Historians try to debunk myths about Ein-
It seems to me that in trying to debunk myths, some historians hobble the
narrative of extraordinary and creative scientists in that they extend the life of
other myths. The issue is that it is not so much that historians endeavor to
debunk myths that bothers me; it is how they do so.
Although historians’ critique of Baron-Cohen and others includes debunking
myths, it piggybacks on another myth: presenting Einstein as a dull, conscien-
tious, agreeable person and an industrious and socially adept individual better
suited to Thomas Kuhn’s incremental ”normal science.”
First, when I wrote my first book, I was told that Albert Einstein, his sister
Maja Winteler-Einstein, and the family members had exaggerated the story of
Albert, who developed slowly, learned to talk late, and whose parents thought
something was wrong with him. I was further told that, of course, there is no
doubt that these stories have a grain of truth, and Maja and Albert recount
their recollections in all sincerity, but these stories sound like family tales and
may be exaggerated. Moreover, Einstein’s friends and assistants (in interviews
and correspondences) contributed to spreading this myth. They thus inspired
biographers to create a widespread mythical public image of Albert Einstein
that embodies stories about Einstein, ”the retarded genius.”
We first conjecture that Einstein and his family members had exaggerated
the story of Albert, ”the retarded genius,” and then show that the ”real” Albert
was a different matter. For instance, Albert’s mother recognized that her son
was talented, and it does not seem that she thought he would develop into
some eccentric. But seen from a distance of time, almost ten years after writing
my book [38], the above argument sounds improbable because Einstein and his
family are accused of inventing stories to create a myth that serves a specific
A different way of considering the situation is presenting Einstein as having
a special gift of friendship. He may not have been working with a large group
of scientists. Still, he was deeply embedded in the academic community and
was a modern professional scientist who earned his living through his work as a
professor at the university. Historians debunk myths by saying that Einstein was
not an isolated genius ”working by himself in an attic with pen and paper” [16].
Einstein had close friendships with physicists and a special gift of collegiality
and was very well-adjusted. Then the argument goes on like this. Although
Einstein was sometimes rude or insensitive, he was not unlike many individuals.
Some of his social behaviors and attitudes may seem unconventional today, but
they were not unusual in his day and milieu. He was very sociable and was
emotionally involved with friends and family, even if he savored solitude when
it was within his reach to pursue his science [7].10
In his biography of Einstein, His Life and Universe, Walter Issaacson elu-
cidates why he is not convinced of the diagnosis of Einstein with Asperger’s
syndrome: ”Even as a teenager, Einstein made close friends, had passionate re-
lationships, enjoyed collegial discussions, communicated well verbally, and could
empathize with friends and humanity in general” [21]. 11
In my opinion, the above narrative, very unfortunately, strips off Einstein
from his great sense of humor, from being stubborn and unconventional and
sticking out his tongue at his pursuers to express his annoyance (the photograph
that has been reproduced endlessly).
Einstein’s former Cantonal School classmate, Hans Byland, one year older
than Einstein, had painted a verbal portrait of Einstein as a teenager: Einstein
as a young man could not be fitted into any pattern, an impudent Swabian, a
restless spirit; nothing escaped the sharp gaze of his large bright brown eyes.
”A sarcastic curl of his rather full mouth with the protruding lower lip did not
encourage Philistines to fraternize with him.” His attitude towards the world
was that of a laughing philosopher, and his witty mockery pitilessly lashed out at
any conceit or pose. Einstein made no bones about voicing his personal opinions,
whether offensive or not, and he had courageous adherence to the truth [36]. Of
course, one can call this ”communicated well verbally.” We have Einstein’s rude
letter in which he lashed out at the editor of The Physical Review: ”We (Mr.
Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized
you to show it to specialists before it was printed. I see no reason to address
your anonymous expert’s in any case, erroneous comments. Based on this
incident, I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere” [27]. And Einstein attacked
his opponents at the Hebrew University and termed Judah Leon Magnes and his
supporters “downright vermin.” On another occasion, he called the university
a “bug-infested house” [34]. It, therefore, seems that Einstein made no bones
about voicing his opinions, whether offensive or not.
It seems to me that the supporters of the view of Einstein as a very well-
adjusted individual not only fail in demolishing myths, this narrative repudiates
Einstein’s patent office years. Einstein’s friends and colleagues at the patent
10I would like to correct some of the stigmas and prejudices about Asperger’s syndrome
found in An Einstein Encyclopedia. Asperger’s syndrome (autism) is neither a disease nor
a mental or emotional disorder. Asperger’s syndrome (autism) is also not a disorder people
”suffer” from. Asperger’s syndrome is not any of the following: a defect, developmental
anomaly, pathological conduct, a mental illness, schizophrenia, and bouts of severe depression.
11Issacson writes: ”A Google search of Einstein + Asperger’s results in 146,000 pages. I do
not find such a long distance diagnosis to be convincing” [21]. I did the exact search, and I
found only 25 pages. Still, it does not mean that these 25 pages are convincing.
office, his table and drawer, pen and sheets of paper, and especially the thoughts
he hatched there were antipodal to an academic community.
Einstein later wrote that, unlike himself, Marcel Grossmann ”was not a
vagabond and loner”[15]. Einstein wrote to Mileva Mari´c: “I always find that
I am in the best company when I am alone, except when I am with you” [10]
(Einstein to Mari´c, Doc 128, Dec 17, 1901). Indeed, unlike Einstein, Grossmann
was quickly given an assistant post under Prof. Wilhelm Fiedler; Grossmann
succeeded Fiedler as a professor at the Polytechnic in 1907. On the other hand,
three years after the publication of the miraculous year papers special relativ-
ity, E=mc2first paper, quanta and Brownian motion Jakob Laub wrote to
Einstein, ”I must confess to you that I was surprised to read that you have to
sit in an office for eight hours a day. But, history is full of bad jokes” (Laub to
Einstein, [11], Doc. 91, March 1, 1908).
Suppose Einstein had this unique quality of being well-adjusted and deeply
embedded in the academic community, as purported. Why did he sit in the
patent office for so long? None of this makes sense in the picture of the well-
adjusted and embedded-in-the-science-community Einstein. A narrative of a
socially adept Einstein does not even make sense in the context of the later
Einstein, sitting in his office in Princeton, let alone sitting in the patent office.
We are trying to press a conscientious and agreeable Einstein into a rebellious
Einstein. But we don’t need Karl Popper to tell us that Einstein was one of
the most exciting and imaginative scientists ever to live; he was intelligent and
creative, a vocational revolutionary scientist. And this is of utmost importance.
He was brilliant, inspirational, abrasive, and rebellious, precisely the type of
truth-seeker to create a scientific revolution. 12
Einstein thought that certain personal matters of his life should not be made
public. That is the reason he did not like biographies that dealt too much with
his personal life [38]. But private letters are profusely found in the Collected
Papers of Albert Einstein (CPAE); for instance, Einstein’s love letters to his first
wife, Mileva Mari´c; Einstein’s later correspondence with Mari´c and his two sons,
Hans Albert, and Eduard; Einstein’s exchange of letters with his second wife
and first cousin, Elsa Lowenthal Einstein; correspondence with Einstein’s sister,
Maja; letters Einstein wrote to his extra-marital lover Betty Neumann, etc.
The reasons behind the decision to publish Einstein’s private correspondence
are that Einstein is not a private person anymore; his life is open to the public.
Einstein has ceased being a private individual and belongs to history. Since
Einstein is long dead, publishing his letters cannot cause him any harm. On the
contrary, he is a historical scientist in the same category as Newton and Galileo.
We do not think of the privacy of such historical figures. We want to know as
much as we can about them because, without full knowledge, one cannot fully
understand the evolution of their ideas [2].
But then, based on Einstein’s private correspondence, biography of his sister
Maja (an abridged version of which was published in the CPAE ), and other
12See the discussion in [9].
first-hand evidence, people have written biographies and books on Einstein’s
private life. And based on these books, other people, in turn, are retrospectively
diagnosing Einstein with all sorts of things. Historians who care about Einstein’s
legacy then fiercely object to this abuse of Einstein’s privacy and, in turn, engage
in (futile) efforts to protect his privacy. Hence, we have vicious circularity.
This work is supported by ERC advanced grant number 834735.
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
The aim of this essay is to elaborate philosophical and ethical underpinnings of posthumous diagnosis of famous historical figures based on literary and artistic products, or commonly called retrospective diagnosis. It discusses ontological and epistemic challenges raised in the humanities and social sciences, and attempts to systematically reply to their criticisms from the viewpoint of clinical medicine, philosophy of medicine, particularly the ontology of disease and the epistemology of diagnosis, and medical ethics. The ontological challenge focuses on the doubt about the persistence of a disease over historical time, whereas the epistemic challenge disputes the inaccessibility of scientific verification of a diagnosis in the past. I argue that the critics are in error in conflating the taxonomy of disease (nosology) and the act of diagnosing a patient. Medical diagnosis is fundamentally a hypothesis-construction and an explanatory device that can be generated under various degrees of uncertainty and limited amount of information. It is not an apodictic judgment (true or false) as the critics presuppose, but a probabilistic (Bayesian) judgment with varying degrees of plausibility under uncertainty. In order to avoid this confusion, I propose that retrospective diagnosis of a historical figure be syndromic without identifying underlying disease, unless there is justifiable reason for such specification. Moreover it should be evaluated not only from the viewpoint of medical science but also in a larger context of the scholarship of the humanities and social sciences by its overall plausibility and consistency. On the other hand, I will endorse their concerns regarding the ethics and professionalism of retrospective diagnosis, and call for the need for situating such a diagnosis in an interdisciplinary scope and the context of the scholarship of the historical figure. I will then enumerate several important caveats for interdisciplinary retrospective diagnosis using an example of the retrospective diagnosis of Socrates for his life-long intermittent neurologic symptoms. Finally, I will situate the present argument in a larger context of the major debate among the historians of medicine and paleopathologists, and discuss the similarities and differences.
Full-text available
Disease in past populations can be studied using a wide range of sources, including archaeology, written texts, and art created in the past. This is an important topic as it helps us understand the course of human history. This study discusses some of the hazards associated with interpreting texts that provide evidence for disease episodes in past populations. It then suggests a framework with which to assess how reliable written passages may be in allowing us to reach a modern biological diagnosis for a historical disease event. The difference between diagnoses made by people living in the past (social diagnosis) and a modern biological diagnosis is stressed, and emphasis is placed upon explaining why it is just not possible to come to a modern biological diagnosis for many past disease episodes. It also considers the controversy regarding the reliability and relevance of attempting modern biological diagnosis, the Cunningham debate. This framework may help those studying written records of disease in past civilizations to minimise the misinterpretation of the recorded thoughts of those witnessing diseases in centuries prior to our own.
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This is a portrait of Albert Einsten, looking at his life and work from a personal perspective. This biography uncovers Einstein's relationships with his family and the three most important women in his life - his first and second wives and his mother. Drawing from archival evidence from Berlin, Zurich, Boston, Edinburgh and Oxford, and on unpublished papers and interviews with scholars, family and friends, it convincingly challenges the carefully cultivated image of Einsten as a modern saint.