HistoryHero Portrait Keller.png

Though robbed of speech, along with her hearing and sight, Helen Keller learned how to make herself heard more clearly than most of us, all thanks to Anne Sullivan.

Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. A perfectly healthy and thoroughly precocious child, she is said to have started speaking at 6 months old. But when she was toddler, Helen was stricken by an illness -- called "brain fever" by the family doctor, it was likely Scarlet Fever or Meningitis. Whatever the name, it ravaged poor Helen. She survived, but she was left permanently deaf and blind.

At the time, disabled Americans like Helen were labeled "deaf and dumb" and more often than not committed to asylums for life where they were treated like caged animals. Helen's parents, however, though not particularly wealthy, were proud. They refused to give up on their daughter. They knew she was intelligent. It was just a matter of unlocking it.

At that time, the famous inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, was developing devices to aid the hearing impaired, especially children. Helen and her parents went to see him and on his advice, they sought the help of the Perkins Institute in Boston, the first school for the blind in the United States. Because Helen's case was so severe, the director recommended a private tutor for Helen. He sent to them a recent graduate from the Institute. Her name was Anne Sullivan.


Anne had lost her sight at the age of 20 and was reduced to living in a homeless shelter until she found her way to the Perkins school. While at Perkins, she received operations on her eyes that restored her sight. She left the school in 1886, determined to help blind children learn how to function in mainstream society. More than most, she understood their plight.

Anne arrived in Alabama in 1887. Helen was just about 7 years old. She was wild and unruly. She would kick and scream and throw raging tantrums when angry. Many Keller family relatives felt Helen should be institutionalized. Anne knew she was just frustrated at not being able to express herself.

Right away, Anne placed her gift to Helen, a doll, in one of the child's hands, tracing the letters D-O-L-L in the palm of her other. Confused and scared, Helen vehemently protested this and subsequent lessons. Anne could see that she wasn't getting through, that Helen wasn't seeing the connection between object and finger spelling. As Helen's frustration grew, so did the tantrums.

Finally, Anne insisted that she and Helen should be isolated, away from all other distractions, so Helen would be forced to concentrate only on Anne. The pair moved into a cottage at the far reaches of the Keller family cotton plantation. There, no one could interrupt their lessons. 


As the story goes, there ensued a dramatic struggle. But the day that Anne took Helen out to the water pump and flushed cool water over one of Helen's hands while fingerspelling W-A-T-E-R into the other, Helen's intellect was awoken. She repeated the word into Anne's hand. Then pounded her foot on the ground, demanding to know its name too. Helen moved to another object, then another, with Anne in tow. By nightfall, she had learned 30 words.

Teacher and pupil bonded intensely then. They would remain at each others' sides for the next 49 years.

From that day forward, Helen's will to learn could not be quenched. At age of 10, she was enrolled in school. Over the years, she mastered several methods of communication, including finger-spelling and typing. She learned to read and write using the Braille system, invented by the blind French teacher Louis Braille. She also taught herself to speak and even to read lips by touching them with her hands.

When Mark Twain met Helen in 1895, he was so struck by her "quickness and intelligence" that he helped her obtain a scholarship to attend Radcliffe College. While a student, Helen wrote her autobiography in braille. Entitled The Story of my Life, it became an instant best seller. Keller graduated, cum laude, from Radcliffe in 1904, at the age of 24.


As an adult, Helen became a passionate advocate for the rights of the disabled in the United States and beyond. She traveled to 40 different countries to speak on behalf of the deaf and blind, and she met every US president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson. She fought for women's suffrage and spoke out against war and the oppression of the poor. In 1915, she co-founded Helen Keller International to combat the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition. And in 1920, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that even today works to defend the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the US Constitution. In her lifetime, Helen Keller authored numerous articles and 12 books.

In 1964, 84-year-old Keller received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson. She died three years later and was buried next to her beloved teacher, Anne Sullivan.

Throughout her long and remarkable long life, Helen Keller stood as a powerful example of how determination, hard work, and imagination can allow an individual to triumph over adversity. With the persistent and loving help of Anne Sullivan, Keller overcame the difficulties of her situation and became a respected and world-renowned activist who labored tirelessly for the betterment of others. We are honored to claim both teacher and student as Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHeroes this Women's History Month 2018.

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