Elisabeth Mann Borgese was born in Munich, Germany, the youngest daughter of writer Thomas Mann and his wife Katia Mann. Her paternal uncle Heinrich Mann also was a novelist. After the Nazis rose to power in 1933, the Mann family left Germany, moving first to Switzerland. Elisabeth studied the piano and cello at the Conservatory of Music in Zurich. In 1938, the family emigrated to the USA. The following year, she married Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, an anti-fascist Italian writer and professor of literature who was 36 years her senior, with whom she had two daughters. She worked as an editor and researcher in Chicago, and served as a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California, before joining the faculty at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1979. She began as a political science professor and later became an adjunct law professor. During these years, she was establishing herself as an international expert on the oceans, maritime law, and protection of the environment. She initiated and organized the first conference on the law of the sea on Malta in 1970, the first of 30 such meetings worldwide, which brought about the United Nations Law of the Seas Treaty in 1982. She founded the International Oceans Institute in the 1970s. She continued to teach until her 80s.