A Biography of Dr Maria Montessori
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 the first woman 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 the first woman to qualify as a doctor 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...
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