Pitt Alumnus and Nobel Laureate Wangari Muta Maathai Dies

Issue Date: 
October 3, 2011
Wangari Muta Maathai and Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg during Maathai’s October 2006 return to Pitt, where she received a Master of Science degree in biology in 1965.Wangari Muta Maathai and Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg during Maathai’s October 2006 return to Pitt, where she received a Master of Science degree in biology in 1965.

University of Pittsburgh alumnus Wangari Muta Maathai, recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, died Sept. 25, at age 71. She earned the Master of Science degree in biology at Pitt in 1965.

Maathai’s lifetime of lauded accomplishments on the international stage led to her recognition as one of the most effective and inspirational women leaders in the world.

“Wangari Muta Maathai dedicated her life to empowering women and girls, to restoring her once fertile and forested homeland, and to working for democracy and global peace,” said Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg. “Her simple declaration—plant a tree—ignited the Green Belt Movement, which spread across Kenya and the rest of Africa, helping to reinvigorate indigenous forests and empower women by paying them to plant trees. Dr. Maathai’s tireless advocacy as a stewardess of the earth and the voice of women, the poor, and the oppressed changed lives, a country, and a continent. It also brought honor to her University, which greatly mourns the passing of this Nobel Laureate and distinguished daughter of Pitt.”

Maathai’s most recent visit to Pitt was in 2006, when she delivered an address about her 30-year effort to reforest her native Kenya by planting 30 million trees and the seeds of change for the future of women. In recognition of her outstanding achievement, Chancellor Nordenberg conferred on her an honorary doctoral degree at that time.

During her visit to Pitt, Maathai remarked: “I feel as though I am back home. I am deeply grateful for the gift that this institution gave me. I felt I was prepared to go forth, ready to serve the world.”

After receiving her BS in biology from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan., Maathai came to Pitt to continue her studies. After she earned her Pitt MS degree, she returned home to the Nyeri district in Central Kenya, intent on teaching and conducting research. In 1971, she received her PhD in anatomy from the University of Nairobi—the first woman to earn a doctorate in east or central Africa—and became chair of that university’s Department of Veterinary Anatomy.

Motivated by the economic plight of women in Kenya and by the deforestation of her once-lush homeland as a result of timber raiders and poor crop management, she interrupted her academic career to run for Parliament. She lost that race and, because of her activism, lost her position at the university.

Her response was to launch a now-legendary grassroots organization, the Green Belt Movement, which mobilized the women whose lives were relegated to working the land to plant millions of trees throughout Kenya, restoring both the earth and the livelihoods of the women and their families.

At the same time, she was unwavering in her activism to promote democracy, and the end of political corruption and tribal politics.

Her commitment to the environment, the empowerment of women, and democracy often put her at risk. She was arrested several times, and beaten unconscious by police during a protest.

But her enduring passion for her causes was rewarded by international recognition and the emulation of her movement elsewhere in Africa. She addressed the United Nations on several occasions and served on the U.N. Commission for Global Governance and the Commission on the Future.

In 2004, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.”

Among her numerous other awards were France’s highest honor, the Legion d’Honneur. She is listed in the United Nations Environment Programme Global 500 Hall of Fame and was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

In 2002, Maathai was elected to Kenya’s Parliament and appointed by Kenya’s president as assistant minister for environment and natural resources. In 2005, she was elected presiding officer of the Economic, Social and Cultural Council of the African Union.