Dr. Maria Montessori

A Woman Before Her Time

Maria Montessori was, in many ways, ahead of her time. Born in  Italy, on August 31, 1870, she became one of the first female physicians in Italy upon her graduation from medical school in 1896.

Through clinical observations in her medical practice she was able to analyze how children learn and concluded that they create themselves from what they find in their environment. Shifting her focus from the body to the mind, she returned to the university to study psychology and philosophy. 

In 1906 she gave up both her university chair and her medical practice to work with a group of sixty young children in the slums of the San Lorenzo district of Rome. It was there that she founded the first Casa dei Bambini, or "Children's House." What ultimately became the Montessori method of education developed there, based upon Montessori's scientific observations of these children's almost effortless ability to absorb knowledge from their surroundings, as well as their tireless interest in manipulating materials. Every piece of equipment, every exercise, every method Montessori developed was based on what she observed children to do "naturally," by themselves, unassisted by adults.

Children teach themselves. This simple but profound truth inspired Montessori's lifelong pursuit of educational reform, methodology, psychology, teaching, and teacher training--all based on her dedication to furthering the self-creating process of the child.   Only recently has science caught up with the Observations Montessori made over 100 years ago.  This article from Science magazine details some of the research.

In 1913, Montessori made her first visit to the United States.  Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel founded the Montessori Educational Association at their Washington, DC, home the same year. Thomas Edison and Helen Keller also supported Dr. Montessori's philosophy of education.

In 1915, she attracted world attention with her "glass house" schoolroom exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco. While in the United States, she also conducted a teacher training course and addressed the annual conventions of both the National Education Association and the International Kindergarten Union. The committee that brought her to San Francisco included Margaret Wilson, the daughter of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

In 1922, Montessori was appointed a government inspector of schools in her native Italy.  Because of her opposition to Mussolini's fascism, she was forced to leave Italy in 1934. She traveled to Barcelona, Spain, and was rescued by a British cruiser in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. She opened the Montessori Training Centre in Laren, Netherlands, in 1938, and founded a series of teacher training courses in India in 1939.

In 1940, when India entered World War II, she and her son, Mario Montessori, were interned as enemy aliens, but she was still permitted to conduct training courses. Later, she founded the Montessori Center in London (1947). Because of her experiences with war, peace became a guiding principle of her method.  She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times--in 1949, 1950, and 1951.

Maria Montessori died in Noordwijk, Holland, on May 6, 1952