Elisabeth Mann Borgese
Founder of the International Ocean Institute
Born in Munich just before the end of the first World War, Elisabeth
Mann Borgese had an unusual upbringing, living in Germany between the
up with a Nobel Prize-winning father, going into exile as a teenager,
and moving in stimulating circles peopled by creative individuals, with
literary, musical, and political interests. Not surprisingly, this
nourishing background produced a remarkable woman who led a remarkable
Her parents were the author Thomas Mann and Katia Pringsheim, and among
her five siblings were an actor and a writer. Thomas Mann moved to
Switzerland in 1933 shortly after the Nazis came to power. Critical of
the regime, he was formally expatriated in 1936, and deprived of his
honorary doctorate from the University of Bonn in 1937 (this was
restored in 1946). In 1940 he became an American citizen, living in
In 1939 Elisabeth married G. A. Borgese in Princeton, New Jersey, and
moved to Chicago, where her husband was a professor of Italian
literature at the
University of Chicago. The Chicago years laid the foundation for her
later work on international law and the oceans. Of particular
significant was her
involvement from 1945 to 1952 with the Chicago Committee to Frame a
World Constitution, which was a multidisciplinary university group that
world constitution and commented on other universal constitutions
produced by non-governmental organizations and private citizens at that
One of the provisions of the Chicago world constitution was to declare earth, water, air and energy "the common property of the human race" - the
management and use of which was to be "subordinated in each and all cases to the interest of the common good."
With McCarthyism on the rise in the US, Elisabeth and her husband moved
to his homeland, Italy, in 1952. Suddenly widowed three months after
she remained in Florence editing and writing, while bringing up their
two daughters. In 1964, her links with the United States were renewed
accepted an invitation from Robert Hutchins, the dynamic founder and
president of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in
California, to become a fellow of the centre. In 1967, she was struck
by the proposal of Ambassador Arvid Pardo of Malta that the oceans
considered the common heritage of mankind. This proposal struck a chord
that resonated throughout Elisabeth's life and work.
She took the lead in initiating a three-year project, culminating in 1970 with a major conference entitled Pacem in Maribus (Peace in the Oceans), which
examined issues relating to the peaceful use of the sea. This conference, located symbolically in Pardo's home country
of Malta and subsequently continued as a
series of international gatherings held around the world, provided the stimulus
for Elisabeth to establish the International Ocean Institute (IOI) two years later. At first, it served mainly as
a conference secretariat and think-tank, which was actively involved in the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea,
in which Elisabeth herself was heavily involved. The IOI grew from its
modest beginnings in 1972 to a network of 25 centres around the world.
Amongst other activities, the Centres have conducted courses, offered
primarily for young professionals with responsibility for marine
management in developing countries.
In 1979 Elisabeth moved to Canada as a Senior Killam Fellow for one year at Dalhousie University.
She was soon made a full professor in the Department of Political
Science, becoming, in her own words, "the guest who stayed forever."
She chose to make her home in Nova Scotia for nearly a quarter of a
century, living in Sambro Head in a house with beautiful and inspiring
views of the sea. Perhaps this contributed to her nickname, The Mother of the Oceans.
At Dalhousie she taught undergraduate and graduate students, continued
to work with the IOI, and even in her eighties, was actively involved
in a wide range of projects relating to the oceans. She travelled the
world to lecture, participate in conferences and workshops, and to
receive honours and awards
from governments, organizations and individuals. To the very end, her
work schedule was gruelling and her level of energy, passion, and
extraordinary for a person of any age, let alone one who had already
achieved so much. She became a Canadian citizen and received the Order of Canada.
For a lecture she gave in The Netherlands in 1999, Elisabeth wrote:
"As T. S. Eliot put it: 'Time present and time past Are
both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time
"The feminist-socialist ideals of my great-grandmother's time; the
socialist humanism or humanist socialism of my father's and my
husband's time are still
with us. The democratic ideals, the ideal of universal peace are still
with us, time present and time past, in time future. But time present,
My Time, has transformed them, as future generations will transform
what we have tried to build."
Over her lifetime, Elisabeth Mann Borgese received honours from
Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, Colombia,
the UN and Canada, and five honorary doctorate degrees. The author of
many books, plays, short stories, papers, articles and even poetry, she
was also a prolific
correspondent and left behind an extensive collection of
With support from a very generous private donor and Dalhousie
the Archives of Elisabeth Mann Borgese have been set up at
Dalhousie's Killam Library, and a good portion of it has now been
digitised. This collection makes a wide range of materials available
for research purposes, with searching possible via the
online guide. The IOI would like to acknowledge the generous financial support of both
the Swiss donor and the university for the establishment of this valuable and historic
resource, one of many fitting legacies in memory of EMB.
Another initiative, the
Elisabeth Mann Borgese Ocean Lecture Series, was instituted by IOI-Canada
in 2005 to commemorate and celebrate
the life and work of Elisabeth. Details can be found on the
EMB Ocean Lecture page.