But Maria experienced an unusual occurrence that strengthened her resolve. One day, as she left the school, determined to quit, she came upon a poor woman begging in the streets, accompanied by her two-year-old child who was playing with some colored paper on the ground. Something came over Maria as she looked into the face of this poor child. The child seemed totally unaware of the harsh realities of the life of poverty that surrounded her; she seemed transfixed into an inner state of peace and wonder. This look of inner peace and happiness, independent of external circumstances, touched and inspired Maria on such a deep level that she turned around and went straight back to the dissecting room. From that moment on she was determined to persevere and continue on with her chosen work. She never again doubted that she had a vocation. Her life was to demonstrate the principle she was to preach in later years: "The preparations of life are indirect." Her father's feelings of opposition to her choice of career changed after he heard her deliver a lecture at the university. She did such a brilliant job in delivering her topic that her father was extremely proud of her.
In 1896 Maria became the first woman in Italy to take the degree of Doctor of Medicine. In that same year she also was chosen to represent the women of Italy at a feminist congress held in Berlin at which she gave a speech supporting the cause of working women. A few years later she attended a similar congress in London where she attacked the practice of exploiting child labor.
In terms of her professional career, after graduation Dr. Montessori was appointed assistant doctor at the Psychiatric Clinic in the University of Rome. During this period she became interested in mentally retarded children. She came to see that mental deficiency was a pedagogical problem rather than a medical one. Through her interest in disabled children, she came in contact with the work and ideas of innovative educators, such as Jean Itard and Eduard Sequin, who devoted their lives to the education of the handicapped. In 1899, at a pedagogical congress, she delivered an address on "Moral Education" in which she advocated that retarded children needed and were entitled to the benefits of education as much as normal children. Because of this lecture, she was asked to give a series of lectures in Rome on the education of the feeble-minded. She compiled a great deal of information on this subject and, when a state orthophrenic school was opened, Dr. Montessori was named the director, a position she held for two years, from 1899 to 1901. She also participated in the actual teaching of these retarded children herself; and through her work with these children, she became interested in the teaching of normal children.
After a time, Maria resigned from the orthophrenic school and began to feel the need for further study and meditation. She registered as a student again to study philosophy and psychology. It was an important time of retreat for her, of re-evaluation, and of expanding her knowledge. She returned to her studies with children with new perspectives and insights.
During these years, in addition to her work with retarded children and her general study, she also studied nervous diseases of children and published the results. From 1896 to 1906, she occupied the Chair of Hygiene at the Magistero Femmile in Rome and was one of the examiners in the Faculty of Pedagogy. In 1904, Dr. Montessori was made a Professor at the University of Rome where for four years she occupied the chair of Anthropology. Her major publication was a large volume entitled Pedagogical Anthropology.
In addition to her work as a lecturer at the University of Rome and the Women's Training College, she also practiced in the clinics and hospitals of Rome and had a private practice. She was concerned about all aspects of her work and further developed her thinking on the philosophy and methods of education.
She also continued to be very interested in the education of normal children, but this field was closed to anyone not part of the state school system. Her chance to work with educating normal children came when she was asked in 1906 to direct a facility that would care for the young children not yet in a state school who lived in a poor area of San Lorenzo. In her work with these children, she used the materials she had developed in her work with retarded children. She found that these materials captured the children's attention in a very profound manner; thus, she developed more and varied materials, and the overall classroom environment developed further as the focus of her method.