Lunch with the Einsteins

Little did the aspiring medical student, Max Talmey, know at the time that his weekly lunches with the Einstein family in the late 1800s would cultivate a lasting relationship with Albert Einstein.

“I remember Uncle Max faintly as a rather austere gentlemen wearing a jacket and vest, who did not interact with me,” said Debbie Ehrenstein who described what her seven-year-old self remembers of her great uncle. Debbie Ehrenstein is mother to David Ehrenstein, the Focus editor for the APS online publication Physics.

Talmey was born in Poland in 1869 and died in New York in 1941. More than his medical contributions or his interest in international languages, Talmey is most noted for his relationship with Albert Einstein, which began during his time as a medical student in Germany.

Every Thursday afternoon, Talmey would take a break from his studies and make his way to the house of the Einstein family. There, in 1889, he met Albert Einstein for the first time.

Albert Einstein as a child taken in 1893. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. 

Young Albert was 10 1/2 years old at the time and in his third year at the college preparatory school Luitpold Gymnasium. Many years later, in 1931, Talmey, who was 20 years old when he met Albert, recalled his memories of those weekly lunches to a reporter for the New York Times:

“Although there was a difference of 11 years between us, the boy had such an aptitude and zest for knowledge that it was an easy matter to get along together,” Talmey told the reporter. “I lent him many of my scientific books and he mastered their content in several months.”

Over the next five years, from 1889 to 1894, Talmey introduced and lent Einstein many books on science and philosophy such as Popular Book on Natural Science by Aaron Bernstein, Force and Matter by Ludwig Buchner and Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. Many of the books that Talmey lent Einstein were considered leading sources of their subjects.

These weekly interactions are why Talmey is often considered an important mentor in Einstein’s early life. Each meeting, Einstein showed Talmey some of the problems he had solved that week and before long, Talmey recalled, the teenage Einstein had surpassed his mentor in mathematics and physics. As a result, their discussions eventually turned to philosophy.

After graduating from medical school in 1894, Talmey left Munich, Germany, and accompanied his older brother to the United States. The older brother had graduated from medical school two years earlier and was the one who introduced Talmey to the Einstein family in the first place.

Electron micrograph of the poliovirus taken in 1975.  Credit: Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Talmey practiced medicine in New York for many years into the mid-20th century. He’s well regarded for his work on cataracts, but his astute medical eye also contributed to other medical fields. Around the year 1917, he observed a link between patients who had underwent a tonsillectomy and later developed polio.

His observations were mostly disregarded until 1929 when a surge of polio cases developed, five of which were children from the same family who had all recently received tonsillectomies. The polio claimed three of those five children’s lives. As a result, the physicians changed the standard of care that year and no longer performed tonsillectomies in the summer when polio was most rampant.

Today, physicians know that the body’s antibodies that fight polio and prevent virus replication are present in the tonsils and gastrointestinal tract. Therefore, without tonsils the body has a more difficult time fending off the disease.

Photograph of Albert Einstein in his office at the University of Berlin, published in the US in 1920.
Image obtained via Wikimedia. 

Despite living an ocean away for nearly 40 years, Einstein was not far from Talmey’s thoughts. In fact, most of Talmey’s time during 1919 and 1920 was spent in the New York Public Library where he dug up everything he could find on Einstein’s momentous work thus far.

Talmey even wrote a book that attempted to explain the complex concepts of Einstein’s relativity theory to the public. More important than the scientific explanations, however, was his account of their friendship.

“The most important aspect of his book is the tale of the relationship he had with Einstein, for it gives us insights into the development of one of the greatest scientists who has ever lived,” stated James Ravin, an ophthalmologist in Toledo, OH, in his 1997 scientific publication on “Albert Einstein and his mentor Max Talmey.”

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