Women's History Month in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Celebrates: Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai (A&S ‘65G) was born in Kenya in 1940. She made her way to the U.S. through a program initiated by the late Kenyan politician Tom Mboya and then U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy. Their goal was to help students in African nations gain access to education. The JP. Kennedy Jr. Foundation funded the program, and Maathai was one of more than 300 students to receive a scholarship. She attended Mount St. Scholastica College, which is now Benedictine College, in Atchison, Kansas. There she majored in Biology with minors in German and Chemistry. After Scholastica, Maathai attended the University of Pittsburgh where she received her MSc in Biological Sciences in 1966.

She completed her PhD in veterinary anatomy in 1971, making her the first Eastern African woman to receive a PhD. After graduation Maathai taught veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi and eventually became the chair of the department. She became involved in the National Council of Women of Kenya and chaired the organization from 1981 to 1987. In her time with the Council, she began a movement to plant trees and help the environment. Maathai thought that a degrading environment would lead to poverty and a low quality of life. She developed the program into the Greenbelt Movement where she assisted other African women in planting more than 20 million trees.

Maathai was outspoken when it came to women’s rights and even addressed the UN on a few occasions to speak on behalf of women. Through her work she became the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Two years prior she was elected to the Kenyan Parliament as Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife.

Wangari passed away in 2011 at the age of 71.