On March 3, 1887, Anne Sullivan (1866-1936), a 20-year-old graduate of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, arrived at the home of Kate Adams Keller and Colonel Arthur Keller to work with their 6-year-old daughter Helen, who, at the age of 19 months, “became deaf and blind as a result of an unknown illness.” It was a life-changing meeting for Helen Keller (1880-1968), and the start of a lifelong journey and friendship shared by both student and teacher.
As soon as Anne began working with Helen, first manually signing into her hand, it became apparent that Helen was extremely gifted. Under the skillful and patient guidance of Anne, Helen learned to both read and write, and by the age of ten had also mastered speech. [Editor’s Note: In this rare footage of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller from a 1930 newsreel, Anne explains and shows how Helen learned to speak. Click image above to play.]
It’s important to note that Anne also suffered from serious vision problems. “Anne underwent many botched operations at a young age before her sight was partially restored,” according to the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). Her courageous struggle to teach Helen how to communicate is nothing short of extraordinary, which is why famed American writer Mark Twain, who was a friend of Anne’s and Helen’s, dubbed her a ‘miracle worker’. In a postcard to Anne, Twain wrote, “To Mrs. John Sullivan Macy with warm regard & with limitless admiration of the wonders she has performed as a ‘miracle-worker.'”
As Helen continued to progress, with Anne by her side every step of the way, she made good on fulfilling her childhood dream of going to college. At age 20, Helen “entered Radcliffe in the fall of 1900 and received a Bachelor of Arts degree cum laude in 1904, the first deafblind person to do so.” But she did not do it alone. As the AFB‘s biography of Helen Keller notes, “The achievement was as much Anne’s as it was Helen’s. Anne’s eyes suffered immensely from reading everything that she then signed into her pupil’s hand. Anne continued to labor by her pupil’s side until her death in 1936, at which time Polly Thomson took over the task.”
“My own life is so interwoven with my Helen’s life that I can’t separate myself from her.” – Anne Sullivan, as quoted in her New York Times obituary
While still a student at Radcliffe, Helen began her writing career, which continued throughout her life. In 1903, her autobiography, The Story of My Life, was published. Since, it has been translated into 50 languages and is still in print today.
In addition to authoring other books, as well as writing “over 475 speeches and essays” on topics such as “faith, blindness prevention, birth control, the rise of fascism in Europe, and atomic energy,” Helen was a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers. Her words reached countless people around the globe.
Later in life, having been early influenced by her teacher and companion Anne Sullivan on the merits of activism, Helen became a political and social activist in support of the needs of people with vision loss, and for causes that included women’s suffrage and worker’s rights.
Helen joined the American Foundation for the Blind in 1924 and worked for the organization for over 40 years. “As a result of her travels across the United States, state commissions for the blind were created, rehabilitation centers were built, and education was made accessible to those with vision loss.”
In 1946, Helen’s work on behalf of those with vision loss extended across the globe when she was appointed counselor on international relations by the American Foundation for Overseas Blind (then the American Braille Press, now Helen Keller International). “During seven trips between 1946 and 1957, she visited 35 countries on five continents.”
For all she did throughout her extraordinary life, Helen was honored around the world, earning numerous awards and receiving “honorary doctoral degrees from Temple and Harvard Universities in the United States; Glasgow and Berlin Universities in Europe; Delhi University in India; and Witwatersrand University in South Africa.”
“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.”- Helen Keller
Helen Keller suffered a stroke in 1960 and died on June 1, 1968, a few weeks short of her 88th birthday. As per the AFB, “Her ashes were placed next to her companions, Anne Sullivan Macy and Polly Thomson, in St. Joseph’s Chapel of Washington Cathedral.”