Elisabeth Mann Borgese
Founder of the International Ocean Institute
2018 Ocean's Week Dalhousie Original:
Dalhousie Originals profile page
Born in Munich just before the end of the first World
War, Elisabeth Mann Borgese had an unusual upbringing, living in
Germany between the wars, growing up with a Nobel Prize-winning father,
going into exile as a teenager, and moving in stimulating circles
peopled by creative individuals, with strong literary, musical, and
political interests. Not surprisingly, this nourishing background
produced a remarkable woman who led a remarkable life.
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 California.
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 drafted a world constitution
and commented on other universal constitutions produced by
non-governmental organizations and private citizens at that time.
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 their arrival, she remained in Florence editing and
writing, while bringing up their two daughters. In 1964, her links with
the United States were renewed when she accepted an invitation from
Robert Hutchins, the dynamic founder and president of the Center for
the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, 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 should be 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 35 centres and focal points
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 commitment
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,
"As T. S. Eliot put it: 'Time present
and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future
contained in time past.'
"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 writings. With support from a very generous private donor
and Dalhousie University, 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
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