By Robert Gardner
September 22, 2011

Dr. Maria Montessori is one of the most famous women in the world and yet a key part of her life is all but unknown. Dr. Robert Gardner, working with colleagues at Clanmore Montessori in Oakville, Ont., took a new look at a time in Maria Montessori’s life that is glossed over, even by her most noted biographers. “Not to know this story is to have an incomplete understanding of one of history’s most remarkable women,” says Cathy Sustronk, one of the founders of Clanmore.

When Maria Montessori was 30 (in 1900) her father presented her with a book filled with 200 articles he had clipped from the national and international press, all of which wrote glowingly about his unusually talented daughter. She was known as the “beautiful scholar,” and in an age when women were blocked from most professions and careers she had – against all odds – become the first woman physician in Italy. She had been interviewed by Queen Victoria and had represented her country at major international conferences. She was elegant, poised and – perhaps – just a bit vain. She was at the height of her fame, and it seemed that she could achieve anything. At this heady moment she was appointed the co-director for a school in Rome. It was an unprecedented appointment for a woman in that very conservative time. Her partner was another young physician, Giuseppe Ferruccio Montesano. Italian sources suggest that he was not in robust good health, but he was elegantly handsome. He came from the south of Italy and in his family, while the sons all entered the professions, the daughters were consigned to “womanly tasks” such as lace-making and the study of music.

He and Montessori fell in love and she became pregnant. At that time, especially in Italy, to have a child out of wedlock would have been disastrous to anyone. Montessori was facing the ignominy of being a scarlet woman. Montesano’s mother, by all accounts a very severe dowager, refused to consider marriage. Montesano was desperate. Montessori, perhaps for the first time in a charmed life, was bewildered. Montesano had a solution. He would give the child his name, but the baby would have to be sent away to a wet nurse as soon as it was born. There was, however, no possibility of marriage. His mother, a woman who traced her ancestry to the House of Aragon, the rulers of southern Italy, was adamant.

Montessori was devastated. Montesano, in trying to calm her, promised that he would never marry anyone else. She was the only one for him. Montessori made the same vow. In a sense, they would have a spiritual union which made the disastrous consequences of their affair less dismal.

A Crisis, Then Remarkable Recovery

A year later Montesano betrayed her and married another woman. Montessori was in complete crisis. She had sent her baby son away to live with strangers and she could not openly acknowledge the child’s relationship to her. In the next decade she would see the child occasionally, but she never indicated to the boy that she was his mother. She was a tortured soul.

In this moment of absolute defeat she did something remarkable. Instead of crumbling under the strain, she went into the seclusion of a convent to meditate. Before the crisis she was likely somewhat egotistical and her life had been filled with triumph after triumph. As a woman of her time, and as an Italian, she was – of course – a Roman Catholic. But her faith was the faith of a scientist and a scholar, skeptical and refined.

Now this proud and brilliant woman was reduced to a state of desperation. However, during the days and weeks in seclusion something incredible happened. In fact, she underwent a complete psychological transformation and she emerged from this period of self-examination with a set of goals which seem unbelievable to the modern observer. She appeared determined to totally reinvent herself. She moved forward with a resolution that is at once baffling and inspiring.

Although she was the first female medical doctor in the history of Italy, she decided to leave the practice of medicine forever. Abruptly, and without explanation, she resigned her prestigious post as co-director of an institute for developmentally challenged children. Then she enrolled at the University of Rome to master totally new areas of study. She took courses in anthropology, educational philosophy, and experimental psychology. At the same time, she made another momentous decision that changed the course of education and teaching forever. Up to this time she had been preoccupied with children who were in some ways in the language of the times, “feeble minded.” Now she decided to focus all of her energies on improving pedagogy for the normal child. With that decision, Dr. Maria Montessori proceeded to revolutionize our thoughts about infancy and the incredible capacities of children from the very moment of birth.

In a strange way, if there had been no Dr. Montesano there would have been no Maria Montessori. He, inadvertently, became the catalyst for a monumental emotional crisis that led Montessori, just into her thirties, to challenge every misconception about the capacities and needs of the very young.

A Son’s Influence on the Nobel Peace Prize Winner

Dr. Montesano never recognized his child, Mario Montessori, as his own. Indeed, even Maria Montessori, on her many tours where Mario was her faithful interpreter, always introduced him as either her nephew or her adopted son. It was when she was close to death that she accepted him publicly and in her will she identified him as “Il figlio mio” – my son.

Montesano, though, was never more than a footnote to history while Maria Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize three times. Among scores of honours, she was the recipient of the French Legion of Honour decoration, and she received honourary doctorates from some of the greatest universities in the world.

Mario Montessori co-founded the Association Montessori Internationale with his mother, Maria Montessori, in 1929.

It was a terrible crisis that forged her untiring will to help children everywhere to reach their true potential. Without that searing ordeal her name, like that of the man who betrayed her, may have been forgotten.

It might be thought that the crisis that shaped her thinking might somehow have diminished her. Even generous modern readers may wonder why she abandoned her child for almost 15 years. The fact is, this terrible tragedy steeled her to recreate herself and caused her to focus her incredible talents in an effort to somehow make amends for the tragic loss of her son’s presence during his formative years.

One day, when he was 15, the young Mario Montessori noticed an elegant woman watching him with great interest. Something told him that this was his mother. He approached her and they were reunited. For the rest of his life, although he subsequently married, he was her constant companion and confidant. They were inseparable and together they created an approach to education that exists to this day.

The remarkable ending to this story is that modern research continues to validate her findings. In a recent study by Dr. Angeline Lillard, titled The Science Behind the Genius, Dr. Lillard collects scores of modern research findings which support Dr. Montessori’s earliest views on educating the child. Increasingly Dr. Montessori’s observations are being employed in secondary schools with stunning results. In fact, her ideas could well be employed in the university system where students are often isolated in an arid world of abstract lectures.

Maria Montessori, in some academic settings, is ignored precisely because she had such a trenchant insight into the failings of so much of what we call education. More than half a century after her death her influence is still making itself felt, still creating a sense of discomfort amongst some professional educators, and still pointing towards a more humane form of transmitting information to young children and adolescents.