Montessori was born in Chiaravalle in the Ancona province of Italy. She was educated at the University of Rome, and in 1894 she became the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree. She joined the medical staff at the university’s psychiatric clinic and soon became interested in the education of children with mental retardation. She gradually became convinced that children with mental retardation were much more capable of learning than experts of that time believed.
In 1901 Montessori was appointed director of the Orthophrenic School of Rome, which had been used as an asylum to confine children with mental retardation. Drawing largely on the ideas of French educators Jean Itard and Edouard Séguin, Montessori provided the children with mental stimulation, meaningful activities, and opportunities to develop self-esteem. She received widespread recognition for her work when many of the adolescents at the school passed standard tests for sixth-grade students in the Italian public schools.