He was a theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity and helped to lay the groundwork for quantum theory. His equation E=mc2 has become the most well-known equation in the world and he is widely regarded as one of the smartest people who ever lived. But was Albert Einstein vegan?
No, Albert Einstein was not vegan. Because of digestive system disorders, and later also moral reasons, he limited his meat intake in the last four decades of his life and eventually stopped eating it completely. However, there’s no indication that he also cut out dairy, eggs, and other animal products.
Albert’s diet-related health problems
Albert’s intellectual accomplishments have received a lot of attention, but few people know about the health problems he faced throughout his life, which were strongly linked to his diet.
The first time he experienced serious health problems was as a student. And those health problems were the result of financial problems. He was living in Switzerland and he simply didn’t have enough money for food, which led to prolonged bouts of malnutrition, which in turn led to serious health problems in the years that followed.
In 1898, when he was 19 years old, he wrote to his girlfriend Mileva Marić: “I was seriously unwell, so that I didn’t dare leave [my] room. My legs are still somewhat unsteady today…” He also wasn’t insured at the time and didn’t have a family physician.
By the time he was 23, he had married Mileva and had a job. He was still poor, but not as poor as before. One of his colleagues described the meals they used to eat together as follows: “[These] dinners were of an exemplary frugality. The menu was usually made up of sausage, a piece of Gruyere cheese, fruit, a small jar of honey and one or two cups of tea.” There’s no indication that Albert had considered giving up meat at that time.
The following years, he was in relatively good health, although he did need two weeks in bed to recover after submitting his papers on the Special Theory of Relativity when he was 26. He became respected in his field and at age 32 he accepted a full professor position in Prague and moved there with Mileva and their children. Unfortunately, his health deteriorated again. One of his friends, who was a doctor, concluded that he was allergic to the local water and persuaded him to move back to Switzerland.
Albert’s chronic health problems
He moved back, but stayed in Switzerland less than two years before moving again, this time to Germany. He separated from Mileva immediately after, and then the First World War broke out. Nonetheless, he continued to do groundbreaking work during this time. But before the war was over, he fell sick again. He was 38 at this point.
He was so sick that he lost 55 lbs (25 kg) in two months, and it took him three years to recover. During this time, his widowed cousin Elsa took care of him. This led to a relationship, and he subsequently married her. Post-war sanctions imposed on Germany resulted in food shortages, which made his recovery extra difficult. “Suffering is dreadful here. Many are dying from malnutrition..,” he wrote in a letter.
Despite his apparent recovery three years after he fell sick, he continued to suffer from chronic health problems for the rest of his life. These health problems were complications of digestive system disorders, specifically: liver ailment, stomach ulcer, gall bladder inflammation, jaundice and acute intestinal pains. In the decades that followed, he learned to adjust his diet to combat these health problems.
Changing his diet and his views
Early in 1921, when Albert was 41 or had just turned 42, he visited Prague again and stayed with his successor, Philipp Frank. In Philipp’s autobiography, he mentions that they bought calf’s liver together and brought it home for lunch. He recalls that as they were talking to each other, his wife began to cook the liver, but Albert noticed she was doing it wrong and jumped at her: “What are you doing there? Are you boiling the liver in water? You certainly know that the boiling-point of water is too low to be able to fry liver in it. You must use a substance with a higher boiling-point such as butter or fat.”
So, Albert clearly still ate meat at that point and didn’t seem concerned about anything other than the way it was cooked. But that mindset would change over time.
When he was 43, he traveled to Asia with Elsa, who was now his wife. During this trip he was plagued by intestinal pains. When he got sick onboard the ship, another passenger, who was a doctor, had to step in to treat him. In an attempt to safeguard his health, Elsa forbade him from drinking coffee and eating potatoes or Japanese food.
Albert was also advised not to eat meat at various points in his life, likely during this time as well. Less than a year later, when he was on vacation with his son Hans, he wrote Elsa a letter in which he said that, like him, Hans ate almost no meat but huge amounts of vegetables.
By the time he was 51, he was publicly praising vegetarianism, even though he still hadn’t cut out meat completely. He wrote a letter to Hermann Huth, the vice-president of the German vegetarian association, in which he said the following:
“Although I have been prevented by outward circumstances from observing a strictly vegetarian diet, I have long been an adherent to the cause in principle. Besides agreeing with the aims of vegetarianism for aesthetic and moral reasons, it is my view that a vegetarian manner of living by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.”
A year later, he wrote to Valentin Bulgakov, the last secretary and biographer of Leo Tolstoy: “The love of living creatures is for me the finest and best trait of mankind.”
When Adolf Hitler came to power, Albert, Elsa, and their secretary Helen Dukas moved to the U.S. together. Albert’s step-daughter Margot and her husband joined the household the following year.
Only two years after that, when Albert was 57, Elsa died. From that point onwards, according to biographer Ronald Clark, “Miss Dukas did most of the cooking, which consisted usually of macaroni, noodles, other soft foods and little meat.”
It’s unclear exactly at what point Albert stopped eating meat. When he was 74, two years before his death, he wrote in a letter: “I have always eaten animal flesh with a somewhat guilty conscience.” But only a year before his death did he make it absolutely clear that he wasn’t eating it anymore. He wrote in another letter: “So I am living without fats, without meat, without fish, but am feeling quite well this way. It almost seems to me that man was not born to be a carnivore.”
Why Albert wasn’t vegan
Although a case could be made that Albert shouldn’t have needed decades to go from praising vegetarianism to actually going vegetarian, the fact remains that he ultimately did. But why didn’t he go vegan?
The main reason for that is that he probably didn’t know veganism even existed. While there certainly were people who lived before him who didn’t consume any animal products or wear any animal materials, veganism, as we know it today, didn’t exist for most of Albert’s life.
In fact, Donald Watson, the founder of the first vegan society in the world, was a vegetarian until the 1940s. He went vegan when he realized that as a vegetarian he was still contributing to the needless exploitation of animals. The word “vegan” only came into existence when he founded The Vegan Society in 1944, when Albert was already 65.
Given that The Vegan Society was founded in the U.K., that it was very small in the early days, and that the first vegan society in the U.S. wasn’t established until after Albert’s death, it’s unlikely that he had ever been introduced to veganism. Luckily, learning about veganism and going vegan is much easier these days.
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