An Italian physician,
educator and innovator…
Maria Montessori… was born on the 31st August 1870 in the town of Chiaravalle, Italy. Her father, Alessandro, was an accountant in the civil service, and her mother, Renilde Stoppani, was well educated and had a passion for reading.
The Montessori family moved to Rome in 1875, and the following year the young Maria enrolled in the local state school on the Via di San Nicolo da Tolentino. As her education progressed, she began to break through the barriers which constrained women’s careers. From 1886 to 1890 she continued her studies at the Regio Instituto Tecnico Leonardo da Vinci, which she entered with the intention of becoming an engineer. This was unusual at the time as most girls who pursued secondary education studied the classics rather than going to technical school.
Upon her graduation, Montessori’s parents encouraged her to take up a career in teaching, one of the few occupations open to women at the time, but she was determined to enter medical school and become a doctor. Her father opposed this course—medical school was then an all-male preserve—and initially Maria was refused entry by the head of school. She was undeterred, apparently ending the unsuccessful interview with the professor by saying, “I know I shall become a doctor”.
Eventually, it seems, Pope Leo XIII interceded on her behalf. In 1890 Montessori enrolled at the University of Rome to study physics, maths and natural sciences, receiving her diploma two years later. This and the Pope’s intercession enabled her to enter the Faculty of Medicine, and she became one of the first women to enter medical school in Italy. Montessori stood out not just because of her gender, but because she was actually intent on mastering the subject matter. She won a series of scholarships at medical school which, together with the money she earned through private tuition, enabled her to pay for most of her medical education.
Her time at medical school was not easy. She faced prejudice from her male colleagues and had to work alone on dissections since these were not allowed to be done in mixed classes. But she was a dedicated student, and on the 10th July 1896 became one of the first female doctors in Italy, and with this distinction also became known across the country.
She was immediately employed in the San Giovanni Hospital attached to the University. Later that year she was asked to represent Italy at the International Congress for Women’s Rights in Berlin, and in her speech to the Congress she developed a thesis for social reform, arguing that women should be entitled to equal wages with men. A reporter covering the event asked her how her patients responded to a female doctor. She replied, “… they know intuitively when someone really cares about them.… It is only the upper classes that have a prejudice against women leading a useful existence.” 
In November 1896 Montessori added the appointment as surgical assistant at Santo Spirito Hospital in Rome to her portfolio of tasks. Much of her work there was with the poor, and particularly with their children. As a doctor she was noted for the way in which she ‘tended’ her patients, making sure they were warm and properly fed as well as diagnosing and treating their illnesses. In 1897 she volunteered to join a research programme at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome, and it was here that she worked alongside Giusseppe Montesano, with whom a romance was to develop.
As part of her work at the clinic she would visit Rome’s asylums for the insane, seeking patients for treatment at the clinic. She relates how, on one such visit, the caretaker of a children’s asylum told her with disgust how the children grabbed crumbs off the floor after their meal. Montessori realised that in such a bare, unfurnished room the children were desperate for sensorial stimulation and activities for their hands, and that this deprivation was contributing to their condition.
She began to read all she could on the subject of mentally retarded children, and in particular she studied the groundbreaking work of two early 19th century Frenchmen, Jean-Marc Itard, who had made his name working with the ‘wild boy of Aveyron’, and Edouard Séguin, his student. She was so keen to understand their work properly that she translated it herself from French into Italian. Itard had developed a technique of education through the senses, which Séguin later tried to adapt to mainstream education. Highly critical of the regimented schooling of the time, Séguin emphasised respect and understanding for each individual child. He created practical apparatus and equipment to help develop the child’s sensory perceptions and motor skills, which Montessori was later to use in new ways. During the 1897-98 University terms she sought to expand her knowledge of education by attending courses in pedagogy, studying the works of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel.
In 1898 Montessori’s work with the asylum children began to receive more prominence. The 28-year-old Montessori was asked to address the National Medical Congress in Turin, where she advocated the controversial theory that the lack of adequate provision for retarded and disturbed children was a cause of their delinquency. Expanding on this, she addressed the National Pedagogical Congress the following year, presenting a vision of social progress and political economy rooted in educational measures. This notion of social reform through education was an idea that was to develop and mature in Montessori’s thinking throughout her life.
Montessori’s involvement with the National League for the Education of Retarded Children led to her appointment as co-director, with Guisseppe Montesano, of a new institution called the Orthophrenic School. The school took children with a broad spectrum of disorders and proved to be a turning point in Montessori’s life, marking a shift in her professional identity from physician to educator. Until now her ideas about the development of children were only theories, but the small school, set up along the lines of a teaching hospital, allowed her to put these ideas into practice. Montessori spent 2 years working at the Orthophrenic School, experimenting with and refining the materials devised by Itard and Séguin and bringing a scientific, analytical attitude to the work; teaching and observing the children by day and writing up her notes by night.