Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1940. She obtained degrees in Biological Sciences, 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, 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. She was also active in the National Council of Women of Kenya (1976–1987) and served as its chair from 1981–1987.

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Wangari Maathai was the founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. She authored four books: The Green Belt Movement; Unbowed: A Memoir; The Challenge for Africa; and Replenishing the Earth. She was featured in a number of books, and along with the Green Belt Movement is the subject of a documentary film, Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai (Marlboro Productions, 2008).

Professor Maathai was internationally acknowledged for her struggle for democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation, received numerous local & international awards. She served on the boards of many organisations, including as the Goodwill Ambassador to the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem, as a UN Messenger of Peace, and founded the Mottainai Campaign in Japan, and the Nobel Women’s Initiative with her sister laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Betty Williams, and Mairead Corrigan.

She was a founder trustee of the Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust and distinguished chair of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies (WMI) at the University of Nairobi.

Professor Maathai died on 25 September 2011 at the age of 71 after a battle with ovarian cancer. She is survived by her children Waweru, Wanjira, and Muta; and granddaughters Ruth Wangari and Elsa Wanjiru.