We have been living without the menace of Scarlet Fever for a solid century now, and in that time it has devolved from a creature of visceral terror that, at its height, killed thirty percent of the children it struck, to a bit of colorful but somehow unreal nostalgia buzzing about the edges of The Velveteen Rabbit. It takes an effort of will and imagination to summon and feel the texture of that age when the disease spelled death for the unlucky, and lifelong deafness for the fortunate.
From the public concern over the rising number of deaf children produced in Scarlet Fever’s wake there arose a great social movement to understand deafness both as physical phenomenon and lived reality, and to construct an educational system that gave the young afflicted some chance at a normal life. At the heart of that movement were two people, a young genius named Alexander Graham Bell whose life passion was teaching the deaf to speak, and a younger woman named Mabel Hubbard Bell (1857-1923) whose brush with scarlet fever at the age of five destroyed her hearing. Together, it is only a slight exaggeration to say, they would make the modern world.
When Hubbard was struck deaf, the outlook for living a normal life was grim. Standard practice in the mid nineteenth century involved isolating deaf children away from society’s gaze until the age of eleven, when they would be packed off to a special Asylum for the Deaf where they’d be taught sign language and little else. Hubbard’s father, a dynamic businessman and science advocate who was a founding member of both the Smithsonian Institute and the National Geographic Society, could not face the prospect of his daughter living such a lonely, exiled existence. He sent inquiries all over the world, looking for other approaches and finally found experimental schools in Germany that taught deaf children how to read lips, and, most miraculously, to speak.
Mabel’s father brought the German system home and, after persistent application of the method, Mabel not only retained the speech she had, but built on it. When a Northampton Committee was considering different approaches for a new school for the deaf, Mabel appeared to tell her story. The sight of the small deaf child accurately reading the lips of her questioners and offering thoughtful and intelligent verbal answers overcame the traditional skepticism about deaf people being able to lead normal lives, and both speaking and sign language were included in the new school’s curriculum.
Her father sent her all over Europe to learn from different teachers and to prove to her that her deafness oughtn’t be an obstacle to the living of a full life. She was clever, funny, and intensely driven, personal characteristics that caught the fascinated attention of a revolutionary teacher who came into her life at the age of sixteen.
Alexander Graham Bell, after a somewhat diffuse beginning, had dedicated his life, as had his father and grandfather before him, to the science of elocution, and particularly to developing a system of visible speech that might help both the deaf and those with speech impediments better form their words and read lips. He and his father sought to encode the visible and mechanical features of different sounds in a way not dissimilar from the phonic experiments of Henry Higgins and Professor Pickering in My Fair Lady.
Young Alexander was torn between his passion for helping people talk, and his brain that kept producing ideas for new inventions that might help the world. The pull between those two life projects would only get more intense as he found himself falling hopelessly in love with his pupil, Mabel Hubbard.
Hubbard was seventeen and Bell twenty seven when he realized his feelings for her. To her, he seemed unspeakably old, brilliant, but shabby, intense, but ultimately unlovable, and she said as much to him. But as she came to know him better, and particularly as her father fell under the spell of his marvelous inventive mind, she found a respect for him that blossomed into affection and eventually something like love, at least similar enough to agree to marriage with the hope that real, full love would develop somewhere along the way.
It was a common gamble in nineteenth century marriage, and one which, in Hubbard’s case, paid off. The partnership between Mabel and Alexander stretched over four decades and brought both triumphs they could not have known separately, and soothed disappointments they could not have born singly.
But all did not go smoothly at first. Mabel and her father were both enraptured at Bell’s designs for the telephone and excited about its potential for profit. They wanted him to devote all his time and energy to developing and patenting the idea. Alexander and his father, for their part, saw his work in developing schools for the deaf and uncovering the heredity of deafness as his real life purpose, and viewed the telephone as a solved problem that it wasn’t worth taking any more time with. No matter which pursuit he gave time to, he was bound to let somebody down, and the strain shows in this passage from Mabel’s diaries, which details a conversation had in the midst of one of their interminable rounds of digging up enough documentation to defend another telephone patent case in court:
Sitting on the floor in the midst of all the confusion I had created with drawers opened and their contents strewn around on table, chairs and bed, Alec and I got into a long discussion on riches. I say I want fifteen thousand a year, my fine house and carriage. Alec says five thousand a year is a handsome income and that I would be able to keep the carriage on that.
“Well, if you want me to give up scientific work and devote myself to making money, you can probably lie in your carriage and dress in velvet, etc.”
“What is there higher than making money really?” asked I rebelliously with unfelt frivolity.
“Science, adding to knowledge, bringing us nearer to God,” answers he sitting upright and speaking enthusiastically. “Yes I hold that is the highest of all things, the increase of knowledge making us more like God. And will you bring me down and force me to give up my scientific work?”
“No, only I want money too if I can get it.”
As much as she claimed to be motivated by the profitability of the telephone, however, the real reasons behind her antipathy for Bell’s scientific work on the causes and treatment of deafness she wouldn’t know herself until significantly later, as she described in a letter to her son-in-law towards her life’s end:
I have never been proud of the fact that although totally without hearing I have been able to mix with normal people. Instead, I have striven in every possible way to have the fact forgotten and so to appear so completely normal that I would pass as one. To have anything to do with other deaf people instantly brought the hardly concealed fact into evidence… My deaf cousins were never invited to a dinner party. To say a child was deaf was enough to make me refuse to take any public notice of it. If help had to be given, it was always at a distance… When my girls were young, I was particularly careful to keep them away from association – and therefore possible interest and sympathy – with the deaf. Above all things I was antagonistic to my husband’s efforts to keep up his association with the deaf and to continue his teaching of them.
Pushed by what she thought was sound financial pragmatism, but was actually more akin to a fierce need for normalcy, Mabel drove Alexander to devote years of his life to fighting off patent infringements in court. It was hard, uninspiring work but at the end he stood the undisputed inventor of the telephone with the ability to create a national communication system whose profits supported all of his scientific endeavors for the rest of his life. His instinct was always, once a technological problem was solved, to move onto the next puzzle and leave others to commercialize the discovery. Mabel’s resolution, groundedness, and organizational sense prevented him from giving into those impulses, providing him the foundation he needed for all his future work.
With the funds from the telephone, Mabel and Alexander were able to buy a large estate in Canada that reminded Alexander of the Scotland of his youth. Here, he had enough land to carry out his next major experiment: The Quest for Heavier Than Air Flight. He experimented with various kite designs to solve the scientific problems of How Things Take Off and How Things Land, and attracted a crowd of young aviation enthusiasts whose presence enriched and enlivened the older couple’s married life. To go farther, however, they needed a guiding hand and starting capital.
Mabel, after the death of her father, had come into a bit of land whose sale netted her $20,000, and she resolved to put the whole into establishing the Aerial Experiment Association with the goal of developing heavier than air travel for eventual commercial applications. That association gave Bell and his young engineer friends the resources they needed to start developing planes powered by motorcycle engines. Those planes were not the first to take to the skies, but their biplane design was the one that ultimately became the industry standard going into World War I, and Mabel Hubbard Bell had by her initiative and keen perception made it happen, and the reason we don’t hear anything about any of it is that Glenn Curtiss, the man whose company made the engines the AEA used, betrayed the group, stole their designs, and made a fortune producing their planes for private and military use, conveniently forgetting to credit Mabel, Alexander, or any of the engineers for their work.
Mabel Hubbard Bell had seen the vast potential of the telephone and pushed Alexander to embrace it. She had seen that air travel would change the face of the world, and put her resources towards seeing its realization. After Alexander’s death in 1922, she set up a research group on their Canadian property to continue investigating the potential of his many other inventions, including the hydrofoil boat concept that had to wait a half century for its full vindication.
She also looked at his experiments with breeding multi-nippled sheep to increase the frequency of twin lamb birth and let them quietly recede back into nothingness, which was all in all probably for the best.
She died a half year after Alexander, and her legacy has been among the trickier to fairly pin down ever since. To some, she is just a pushy wife whose presence in discussions of the history of invention detracts from her husband’s fame. Others feel that talking about her pulls interest away from others more deserving – “Why tell another “silent partner” tale when there are so many actual women researchers whose stories are waiting to be told? You haven’t even done Marie Curie yet for crying out loud!”
But to me she is a fundamentally complex character whose life story shines light on the deep machinery of the inventive process as it works from concept to institution. Discovery is rarely as clean as our elementary school books told us, and lone genius fades into nothingness more often than it overcomes adversity. The march of progress (if there is such a thing) requires those with enough vision and scientific sense to see brilliance when it is born, but enough practical grounding to know when to give support, and when to withhold it. Mabel Bell knew which experimental horses to back, when, and how, and that insight put planes in the sky and telephone lines across the nation and even though she did not invent anything in the classical sense, our world is very much the one she foresaw.
FURTHER READING: Lilias M. Toward’s Mabel Bell: Alexander’s Silent Partner (1984) is a biography composed mostly of diary entries and letters held together with historical background that is invaluable for Alexander Graham Bell fans, historians of deaf education, and Women in Science enthusiasts. The woman who emerges from the pages evades easy understanding – now deeply inspiring in her persistence and foresightedness, now distastefully avaricious and bellicose, she is somebody you want to know more about every time you come across her.