On March 3rd 1887, Anne Sullivan began teaching six-year-old Helen Keller, who had lost her sight and hearing after a severe illness at the age of 19 months. Under Sullivan’s tutelage, including her pioneering “touch teaching” techniques, the previously uncontrollable Keller flourished, eventually graduating from college and becoming an international lecturer and activist. Sullivan, later dubbed “the miracle worker,” remained Keller’s interpreter and constant companion until the older woman’s death in 1936.
Sullivan, born in Massachusetts in 1866, had firsthand experience with being handicapped: As a child, an infection impaired her vision. She then attended the Perkins Institution for the Blind where she learned the manual alphabet in order to communicate with a classmate who was deaf and blind. Eventually, Sullivan had several operations that improved her weakened eyesight.
Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27, 1880, to Arthur Keller, a former Confederate army officer and newspaper publisher, and his wife Kate, of Tuscumbia, Alabama. As a baby, a brief illness, possibly scarlet fever, left Helen unable to see, hear or speak. She was considered a bright but spoiled and strong-willed child. Her parents eventually sought the advice of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone and an authority on the deaf. He suggested the Kellers contact the Perkins Institution, which in turn recommended Anne Sullivan as a teacher.
Sullivan, age 20, arrived at Ivy Green, the Keller family estate, in 1887 and began working to socialise her wild, stubborn student and teach her by spelling out words in Keller’s hand. Initially, the finger spelling meant nothing to Keller. However, a breakthrough occurred one day when Sullivan held one of Keller’s hands under water from a pump and spelled out “w-a-t-e-r” in Keller’s palm. Keller went on to learn how to read, write and speak. With Sullivan’s assistance, Keller attended Radcliffe College and graduated with honours in 1904.
Helen Keller became a public speaker and author; her first book, “The Story of My Life” was published in 1902. She was also a fundraiser for the American Foundation for the Blind and an advocate for racial and sexual equality, as well as socialism. From 1920 to 1924, Sullivan and Keller even formed a vaudeville act to educate the public and earn money. Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968, at her home in Westport, Connecticut, at age 87, leaving her mark on the world by helping to alter perceptions about the disabled.
Great overview. Helen Keller was one of my childhood idols.
Truly. Laura Bridgman was another. 🙂
Do you have any links to good Laura Bridgeman post or articles?
Hellen Keller has been one of my biggest inspirations, but I never really gave the credit that Sullivan deserves. She was, after all, the one that helped her to succeed.
Anne Sullivan had an incredible skill to be able to reach Helen Keller like that.
To tell the truth I’ve always been more interested in Sullivan then Keller. Sullivan certainly had her work cut out for her. Really enjoyed the post.
As a teacher, I can only marvel at the results they achieved together.
A very inspiring piece. *Thank you.*
It’s more a piece about awe-inspiring people. 🙂
Two inspirational people who lived at the wrong time. Great post, Craig!
Perhaps they helped change the times they lived in.
Reblogged this on jane222570 and commented:
Great post. Two people ahead of their time. Bravo!
Glad you liked it 🙂
More about Helen Keller is at
Many United States ‘mainstream’ views on Keller omit her ‘inconvenient’ criticism of capitalism, of oppression of women, etc.
Thanks for that. I like the links 🙂
You are very welcome!
Incidentally, I just recently discovered that Helen Keller was an ardent skeptic of William Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays, favoring instead the candidacy of Edward de Vere. Apparently, she and Mark Twain had similar views and discussed the topic often. Learned all this from James Shapiro’s “Who Wrote Shakespeare?”, which I reviewed recently on my own website, in case you are interested:
There has been a lot of speculation on who wrote Shakespeare. I had students all over China telling me that they are Chinese stories, and that Shakespeare copied them 🙂
Where did Helen Keller write on skepticism of William Shakespeare’s authorship? If so, that would be a minus for Ms Keller, and against her views on most subjects; as snobism is the main driving force against the “Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare” theories.
Uplifting stuff. I only know about Helen Keller and Ann Sullivan from the 1962 film, but I remember it vividly. What inspirational women they both were – thanks for the reminder. Thanks for the follow, too 🙂
Glad you liked the post, and glad to be following you as well.
As the father of a child who was born and diagnosed as being ‘profoundly deaf’ in both ears, I am happy an honored to report that today she is two years away from receiving her Masters degree at the University of Connecticut. I took her to see the play on Helen Keller & Anne Sullivan at the theater in the round in Manhattan several years ago and it still remains her favorite.
Thanks for sharing…
Your daughter has made an outstanding achievement. Congratulations to her, and the family that supported her.
She’s never let her disability stop her from achieving her goals. Very proud of her…
This is a definition of inspiration and courage. Great article!
Thanks for reminding me of this beautiful story.