Helen Keller Biography (1880-1968)

HellenKeller. Born Helen Adams Keller on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. She overcame the adversity of being blind and deaf to become one of the 20th century’s leading humanitarians.

was the first of two daughters born to Arthur H. Keller and Katherine Adams Keller. She also had two older stepbrothers. Her father had proudly served as an officer in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. The family was not particularly wealthy and earned income from their cotton plantation. Later, Arthur became the editor of a weekly local newspaper, the North Alabamian. Helen was born with her senses of sight and hearing. She started speaking when she was six months old, and could communicate and walk at the age of one.

In 1882, however, Helen contracted an illness—the family doctor called it “brain fever”—that produced a high body temperature. The true nature of the illness remains a mystery today, though some experts believe it might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. Within a few days after the fever broke, Helen’s mother noticed that her daughter didn’t show any reaction when the dinner bell was rung, or when a hand was waved in front of her face. Helen Keller had lost both her sight and the ability to hear. She was only 18 months old.

As Helen grew into childhood, she developed a limited method of communication with her companion, Martha Washington, the young daughter of the family cook. The two had created a sign language, and by the time Helen was 7, they had invented more than 60 signs to communicate with each other. But Helen had become very wild and unruly during this time. She would kick and scream when angry and giggle uncontrollably when happy. She tormented Martha and inflicted raging tantrums on her parents. Many family relatives felt she should be institutionalized.

Looking for answers and inspiration, Helen’s mother came across a travelogue by Charles Dickens titled “American Notes” in 1886. There she read of the successful education of another deaf and blind child, Laura Bridgman. She dispatched Helen and her father to Baltimore, Maryland, to see specialist Dr. J. Julian Chisolm. After examining Helen, he recommended she see Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell met with Helen and her parents and suggested the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts. There they met with the school’s director, Michael Anaganos. He suggested Helen work with one of the institute’s most recent graduates, Anne Sullivan. Thus began a 49-year-long relationship between teacher and pupil.

In March 1887, Anne Sullivan went to Helen Keller’s home in Alabama and immediately went to work. She began by teaching Helen finger spelling, starting with the word “doll” to help Helen understand the gift of a doll she had brought. Other words would follow. At first, Helen was curious, then defiant. She refused to cooperate with Sullivan’s instruction. When Helen did cooperate, Anne could tell that she wasn’t making the connection between the objects and the letters spelled out in her hand. Sullivan kept working at it, forcing Helen to go through the regimen. As Helen’s frustration grew, the tantrums increased. Finally, Sullivan demanded that she and Helen be isolated from the rest of the family for a time so that Helen could concentrate only on Sullivan’s instruction. They moved to a cottage on the plantation.

In a dramatic struggle, Sullivan taught Helen the word “water” and, in doing so, helped her make the connection between the object and the letters. Sullivan had taken Helen out to the water pump and placed Helen’s hand under the spout. While Sullivan moved the lever to flush cool water over Helen’s hand, she spelled out the word w-a-t-e-r on Helen’s other hand. Helen understood and repeated the word in Sullivan’s hand. Then she pounded the ground, demanding to know its “letter name.” Sullivan followed her, spelling out the word into her hand. Helen moved to other objects with Sullivan in tow. By nightfall, Helen had learned 30 words.

In 1890, Helen Keller began speech classes at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston. She would toil for 25 years to learn to speak so others could understand her. From 1894 through 1896, she attended the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City. There she worked on improving her communication skills and studied regular academic subjects. About this time, Keller became determined to attend college. In 1896, she attended the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, a preparatory school for women. As her story became known to the general public, Keller began to meet famous and influential people. One of them was the writer Mark Twain, who was very impressed with Keller. They became friends. Twain introduced her to his friend Henry H. Rogers, a Standard Oil executive. Rogers was so impressed with the woman’s talent, drive, and determination that he agreed to pay for Keller to attend.

While Helen Keller was attending Radcliff College, she was accompanied by Anne Sullivan, who sat by her side interpreting lectures and texts. By this time, Keller had mastered several methods of communication, including touch-lip reading, Braille, speech, typing, and finger spelling. With the help of Sullivan and her future husband, John Macy, Keller wrote her first book, The Story of My Life. It covered her transformation from childhood to 21-year-old college student. Keller graduated from cum laude in 1904 at the age of 24.

In 1905, Sullivan married John Macy, who at the time was an instructor at Harvard University, a social critic, and a prominent socialist. The marriage caused no change in Sullivan and Keller’s relationship, as Sullivan continued to be Keller’s guide and mentor. Helen Keller went to live with the Macys, and at first they both gave Keller their undivided attention. But gradually, Anne and John became distant to each other as Sullivan’s devotion to Keller continued unabated. After several years they separated, though were never divorced.

After college, Helen Keller set out to learn more about the world and how she could help improve the lives of others. News of her story spread beyond Massachusetts and New England. She became a well-known celebrity and lecturer by sharing her experiences with audiences and working on behalf of others living with disabilities. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Keller tackled social and political issues including women’s suffrage, pacifism, and birth control. She testified before Congress, strongly advocating improving the welfare of blind people. In 1915 Keller, along with renowned city planner George Kessler, co-founded Helen Keller International to combat the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition. In 1920, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

When the American Federation for the Blind was established in 1921, Keller had an effective national outlet for her efforts. She became a member in 1924, and participated in many campaigns to raise awareness, money, and support for people who are blind. She also joined other organizations dedicated to helping those less fortunate, including the Permanent Blind War Relief Fund (later called the American Braille Press).

Soon after she graduated from college, Helen Keller became a member of the Socialist Party, most likely due in part to her friendship with John Macy. Between 1909 and 1921, she wrote several articles about socialism and supported Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for president. Her series of essays on socialism entitled “Out of the Dark” described her views on socialism and world affairs. It was during this time that Keller first experienced public prejudice about her disabilities. For most of her life, the press had been overwhelmingly supportive of her, praising her courage and intelligence. But after she expressed her socialist views, some criticized her by calling attention to her disabilities. One newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle wrote that her “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.”

In 1936, Helen Keller’s beloved teacher and devoted companion, Anne Sullivan, died. She had experienced health problems for several years, and in 1932 lost her eyesight completely. A young woman named Polly Thompson had begun working for Keller and Sullivan in 1914 as a secretary. Upon Sullivan’s death, Polly became Keller’s constant companion.

In 1946, Helen Keller was appointed counselor on international relations for the American Foundation of Overseas Blind. Between 1946 and 1957, she traveled to 35 countries on five continents. In 1955, at age 75, Keller embarked on the longest and most grueling trip of her life: a 40,000-mile, five-month trek across Asia. Through her many speeches and appearances, she brought inspiration and encouragement to millions of people.

Keller’s autobiography The Story of My Life was used as the basis for a 1957 television drama, The Miracle Worker. In 1959, the story was developed into a Broadway play of the same title, starring Patty Duke as Helen Keller and Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan. The two actresses also performed those roles in the 1962 award-winning film version of the play.

Helen Keller suffered a series of strokes in 1961, and spent the remaining years of her life at her home in Connecticut. During her lifetime, she received many honors in recognition of her accomplishments including the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal in 1936, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, and election to the Women’s Hall of Fame in 1965. She received honorary doctoral degrees from Temple University and Harvard University and from the universities of Glasgow, Scotland; Berlin, Germany; Delhi, India; and Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was also an Honorary Fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

Helen Keller died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, just a few weeks before her 88th birthday. During her remarkable life, Keller stood as a powerful example of how determination, hard work, and imagination can allow an individual to triumph over adversity. By overcoming difficult conditions with a great deal of persistence, Helen grew into a respected and world-renowned activist who labored for the betterment of others.

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