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I am not sure in what bio I read this but it was not a new bio -- not Isaacson, for example. The anecdote was simply that he wanted to see an old professor/teacher (as many of us I think might do if we were near our old college or high school) and the teacher, an old man by then, was concerned that he wanted to borrow money and the reunion did not go congenially or was very short.

I wonder when this might have happened since after 1905, I would guess Einstein was starting already to become known. And I am wondering who it might have been -- I am pretty sure in the bio he was not named and that implies to me that he was more likely a high school teacher rather than a college professor. Of course, this may now be lost to history but I can think of few people whose past has been more thoroughly researched (as in the case of the haunting book Einstein's Daughter where the author managed to meet people who had known the family of his first wife or even people who had known his first wife).

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    $\begingroup$ This incident maybe? "Another teacher there, Dr. Ferdinand Ruess, was different from the rest. Instead of emphasizing memorization and passive acceptance of facts, he made the students think for themselves. [...] Einstein had a great appreciation for Dr. Ruess. Later in life, when Einstein was famous, he decided to pay his old teacher a visit. As often happens, Ruess didn’t recognize his former student. Seeing Einstein in his usual baggy and worn-out clothes, Ruess mistook him for a beggar and had his maid throw him out." $\endgroup$ – njuffa Jul 22 at 4:11
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    $\begingroup$ More info here: "Nor to the one teacher he really liked, a Dr. Ferdinand Ruess, who taught history and German. [...] Many years later, probably in 1909, Einstein returned to the school to call on Dr. Ruess, who did not remember him. Einstein was poorly dressed and assumed that Ruess suspected that he was a stranger down on his luck who had come to beg, borrow, or steal from him. Einstein ended the embarrassing encounter with a quick exit." $\endgroup$ – njuffa Jul 22 at 4:22
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    $\begingroup$ Googling around further I learned that the visit to Dr. Ruess in Munich likely happened in September 1909, as Einstein was traveling from Bern to Salzburg to attend a conference there. I have yet to identify a proper source for this story about the brief and embarrassing encounter with Dr. Ruess, thus comments for now instead of an answer. $\endgroup$ – njuffa Jul 22 at 4:41
  • $\begingroup$ @njuffa: this sounds exactly right. what search terms did you use? i would not have guessed it was a history teacher but that he was not a science teacher explains why he would have no idea who einstein was. $\endgroup$ – releseabe Jul 22 at 5:01
  • $\begingroup$ I don't recall my search terms. I think I started with Einstein + teacher + visit. Best I can tell Dr. Ruess taught Greek and Latin besides German, and he appears to be identical to a Dr. Ferdinand Ruess who published several books on Greek and Roman shorthand, and was a member of the Munich shorthand association (Stenographenverein). Trying to find definite sources turns out to be very difficult and frustrating because there are so many occurrences of search terms that Google (incl. Google Books, etc) returns mostly noise. $\endgroup$ – njuffa Jul 22 at 5:24
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So far I have been unable to find the original source for the story mentioned in the question. However, there are multiple mentions of this incident in the general literature about Einstein. All accounts agree that the teacher was Dr. Ferdinand Ruess, who taught at the Luitpold-Gymnasium in Munich, the high school that Einstein attended from 1888 to 1894.

Denis Brian, "The Unexpected Einstein", Hoboken, NJ: Wiley 2005

Nor to the one teacher he really liked, a Dr. Ferdinand Ruess, who taught history and German. [...] Many years later, probably in 1909, Einstein returned to the school to call on Dr. Ruess, who did not remember him. Einstein was poorly dressed and assumed that Ruess suspected that he was a stranger down on his luck who had come to beg, borrow, or steal from him. Einstein ended the embarrassing encounter with a quick exit.

Carlos I. Calle, "Einstein For Dummies", Hoboken, NJ: Wiley 2005

Another teacher there, Dr. Ferdinand Ruess, was different from the rest. Instead of emphasizing memorization and passive acceptance of facts, he made the students think for themselves. He inspired in them a love for German literature and for the study of ancient civilizations. Einstein had a great appreciation for Dr. Ruess. Later in life, when Einstein was famous, he decided to pay his old teacher a visit. As often happens, Ruess didn’t recognize his former student. Seeing Einstein in his usual baggy and worn-out clothes, Ruess mistook him for a beggar and had his maid throw him out.

Ronald W. Clark, "Einstein: The Life and Times", 1971 [Thanks to @kimchi lover for the pointer in comments]

At the Gymnasium there appears to have been, as there frequently is in such schools, one master who stood apart, the odd man out going his nonconformist way. His name was Reuss. [...] In later life Einstein would recall how Reuss had tried to spark alive a real interest in ancient civilizations and their influences which could still be seen in the contemporary life of southern Germany. There was to be an unexpected footnote to Einstein's memory. For after his first work had began to pass a disturbing electric shock through the framework of science, he himself visited Munich and called on his old teacher, then living in retirement. But the worn suit and baggy trousers which had already become the Einstein hallmark among his colleagues merely suggested poverty. Reuss had no recollection of Einstein's name and it became clear that he thought his caller was on a begging errand. Einstein left hurriedly.

Gerald Holton, "Einstein and the Cultural Roots of Modern Science." In: Peter Galison, Michael Gordin, David Kaiser, eds. "Making Special Relativity", Routledge 2001

then, under the supervision of his only beloved teacher, Ferdinand Ruess, poems by Uhland, Schiller, Goethe, and others;

The curriculum notes in the Einstein papers at Princeton suggest that in addition to German and history, Dr. Ruess also taught Latin and Greek and was Einstein's Ordinarius (a function analogous to an American home room teacher) in 1893/1894.

If we accept the dating of the incident to 1909, it is likely that it happened during a stopover in Munich as Einstein traveled from Switzerland to Salzburg to give a talk at the 81st Meeting of German Scientists and Physicians (Versammlung Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte) in Salzburg on September 21, 1909: "Über die Entwicklung unserer Anschauungen über das Wesen und die Konstitution der Strahlung" (On the Development of our Views Concerning the Nature and Constitution of Radiation).

I was able to find the scan of an unnamed publication in Google Books that contains some biographical data on Dr. Ruess:

RUESS, Ferdinand, Gymn.-Prof., Dr. — *30 V 1853, Augsburg. — V: Matthias R.; M: Viktoria gb. Bach. — Gymn. Augsburg; Univ. München, Würzburg. — Verh.: 82 m. Karoline gb. Schmid T v. Georg S., Fabrikant München — K. Hermann *80. — 75 Assist. am Realgymn. Würzburg; 80 Gymnlehr. in Neuburg a. d. Donau; 93 Gymn.-Professor am Luitpold-Gymn. München — W: Tachygr. d. Röm. 79; Griech. Tachygr. 82; Progr. üb. Tiron. Noten 83 u. 89; Stenogr. Wörterb. 96, 00, 03, 06; Lehrb. d. Gab. Stenogr. 04 — L-B: Alte Tachygr.; Gab. Stenogr. — 1. Vors. d. Gab. Sten.-Zentralver.; Mitgl. d. Prüfgskomm. f. d. Lehramt d. Sten. — Ehrenmitgl. mehr. Sten,-Ver. — München, Steinsdorfstr. 6 III

Ferdinand Ruess was born on May 30, 1853 in Augsburg, attended the local high school there and subsequently studied at the universities of Munich and Würzburg. He started working as a teacher in the latter city in 1875. He married the daughter of a Munich industrialist in 1882. He had a keen interest in shorthand and published several books on ancient Greek and Roman shorthand as well as modern shorthand and was a member of the Munich stenographer's association (Stenographenverein). The Internet Archive provides a high-quality scan of his 1882 book "Ueber griechische Tachygraphie" (On Greek Tachygraphy).

Some additional biographical details and a picture of Dr. Ruess are provided in a publication related to the Gabelsberger stenography association:

K. Heck, "Geschichte der Schule 'Gabelsberger', Zweiter Teil," Wolfenbüttel: Hecknersche Druckerei 1902.

From this we learn that he started working at the Luitpold-Gymnasium in 1887 and was promoted there to the rank of Gymnasialprofessor in 1893.


A curious side note, which to me sheds some doubt on the story in the question, which may thus be apocryphal.

In 2018 some postcards sent to Einstein were put up for auction. Among these is a postcard by Dr. Ruess in Munich, written in shorthand and dated September 23, 1900. This would seem to indicate that the teacher was corresponding with Einstein after he left high-school, making it less likely that he wouldn't have recognized him by name in 1909. The scan of the postcard provided by the auction house is of sufficient quality that someone with knowledge of Gabelsberger shorthand could decipher and transcribe it.

The postcard is potentially a reply to a letter by Einstein. In a letter to Mileva dated September 19, 1900 preserved in the Princeton Einstein papers he mentions writing a letter to a former teacher in Munich, who may well have been Dr. Ruess:

Gestern hab ich in einem launigen Stündchen einem meiner früheren Lehrer in München, den ich besonders gern hatte, einen Brief geschrieben, will sehen, ob er mir vielleicht was drauf antwortet.

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    $\begingroup$ I wonder how many living humans know ancient Greek shorthand or when the last time anyone used it. Maybe 1909? $\endgroup$ – releseabe Jul 22 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ The postcard is written in a modern German shorthand due to Gabelsberger. Dr. Ruess was a shorthand enthusiast who already lent his services to the police as a high-school student. He was a leading member of the Munich shorthand association, and a driving force behind a statue of Gabelsberger. The shorthand on the postcard certainly looks similar to the shorthand still in use to in Germany today (e.g. used for parliamentary protocols). $\endgroup$ – njuffa Jul 22 at 9:07
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    $\begingroup$ R. W. Clark's 1971 bio of E has this story, without source note. $\endgroup$ – kimchi lover Jul 22 at 13:53

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