Renowned for her influential work in early childhood education, Maria Montessori was a staunch feminist who was for many years a practicing physician. Born in Chiaravalle, Ancona, Italy, she lived from August 31, 1870, to May 6, 1952. After completing secondary school and graduating from a technical institute in 1890, she became the first woman to be admitted to the University of Rome’s medical school. In 1896, she went on to become the first woman in Italy to earn a medical degree.
Montessori’s association with early childhood education began in the late 1890s through her medical treatment of children with cognitive disabilities. Determined to help them learn and achieve successful social integration, she opposed the widespread practice of institutionalization, which was standard at the time. Further practical and theoretical work convinced her that the methods she developed would also benefit children without disabilities. Realizing that poor families had limited opportunities, she aimed to provide early education in poor neighborhoods, beginning in Rome. The new type of nursery school was called a “children’s house,” or in Italian, Casa dei Bambini. The first Casa opened in January 1907. A central feature of her approach was “self education,” building on the children’s abilities to explore the world around them, and offering positive reinforcement.
Montessori’s association with India began in 1913, when an Indian student attended a course in Rome. In 1926, the Montessori Society of India was formed, and several of her works were translated into Hindi and Gujarati. The poet Rabindranath Tagore became a prominent supporter, and several Indian schools were called “Tagore–Montessori” schools. Another aspect of her connection to India was her involvement in theosophy, and her first visit to India included teaching at the Madras Theosophical Society. Arriving in India in 1939, she did not intend to stay long, but World War II gave her a complicated status as an Italian in the British colony. She ended up staying in India until 1946, a period that included teaching in Sri Lanka. After a period in England, she returned to India briefly in 1947.