Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, a rural area of Kenya (Africa), in 1940. She obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas (1964), a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh (1966), and pursued doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi, before obtaining a Ph.D. (1971) from the University of Nairobi, where she also taught veterinary anatomy. The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, Professor Maathai became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor in 1976 and 1977 respectively. In both cases, she was the first woman to attain those positions in the region.
Professor Maathai was active in the National Council of Women of Kenya (1976–1987) and was its chairman (1981–1987). In 1976, while she was serving in the National Council of Women, Professor Maathai introduced the idea of community-based tree planting. She continued to develop this idea into a broad-based grassroots organisation, the Green Belt Movement (GBM), whose main focus is poverty reduction and environmental conservation through tree planting.
Professor Maathai was internationally acknowledged for her struggle for democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation, and served on the board of many organisations. She was honored with 15 honorary doctorate degrees from various renowned institutions, given about 50 international recognition awards and 18 Professional affiliations. She was the 2004 NOBEL PEACE PRIZE WINNER and the first African woman to be accorded such honor.
Professor Maathai died on 25 September 2011 at the age of 71.