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Helen Keller

Both Deaf and Blind, Helen Keller Became a Writer and Activist

By Patricia Daniels, Contributing Writer

A picture of Helen Keller.

American writer, educator and advocate for the disabled Helen Keller. A childhood illness left Keller blind, deaf and mute. (1910)

(Photo by FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Who Was Helen Keller?

Helen Keller became both blind and deaf after suffering a nearly fatal illness at 19 months of age. Seemingly sentenced to a life of isolation, Helen made a dramatic breakthrough at the age of six, when she learned to communicate with the help of her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Unlike many disabled people of her era, Helen refused to live in seclusion; instead, she achieved fame as a writer, humanitarian, and social activist. Helen Keller was the first deaf-blind individual to earn a college degree.

Dates: June 27, 1880 -- June 1, 1968

Also Known As: Helen Adams Keller

Darkness Descends Upon Helen Keller

Helen Keller was born June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama to Captain Arthur Keller and Kate Adams Keller. Captain Keller was a cotton farmer and newspaper editor and had served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Kate Keller, twenty years his junior, had been born in the South, but had roots in Massachusetts and was related to founding father John Adams.

Helen was a healthy child until she became seriously ill at 19 months. Stricken with an illness that her doctor called "brain fever," Helen was not expected to survive. After several days, the crisis was over, to the great relief of the Kellers. However, they soon learned that Helen had not emerged from the illness unscathed -- she was blind and deaf. (Historians believe that Helen had contracted either scarlet fever or meningitis.)

Helen Keller: The Wild Child

Frustrated by her inability to express herself, Helen Keller frequently threw tantrums, which often included breaking dishes and even slapping and biting family members. When Helen, at six years old, tipped over the cradle holding her baby sister, Mildred, Helen's parents knew something had to be done. Well-meaning friends and relatives suggested that she be institutionalized, but Helen's mother resisted that notion.

Soon after the incident with the cradle, Kate Keller came across a book written several years earlier by Charles Dickens about the education of Laura Bridgman. Laura was a deaf-blind girl who had been taught to communicate by the director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. For the first time, the Kellers felt hopeful that Helen could be helped as well.

In 1886, the Kellers made a trip to Baltimore to visit an eye doctor; that trip would bring them one step closer to getting help for Helen.

Helen Keller Meets Alexander Graham Bell

During their visit with the eye doctor, the Kellers received the same verdict they had heard many times before. Nothing could be done to restore Helen's eyesight. The doctor advised the Kellers that Helen might in some way benefit from a visit to Alexander Graham Bell in Washington, D.C. Known as the inventor of the telephone, Bell -- whose mother and wife were deaf -- had devoted himself to improving life for the deaf and had invented several assistive devices for them.

Alexander Graham Bell and Helen Keller got along very well and would later develop a lifelong friendship. Bell suggested that the Kellers write to the director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind -- where Laura Bridgman (now an adult) still resided. After several months, the Kellers finally heard back. The director had found a teacher for Helen; her name was Annie Sullivan.

Annie Sullivan Arrives

Helen Keller's new teacher had also lived through difficult times. Born in Massachusetts in 1866 to Irish immigrant parents, Annie Sullivan had lost her mother to tuberculosis when she was eight. Unable to care for his children, her father sent Annie and her younger brother, Jimmie, to live in the poorhouse in 1876. They shared quarters with criminals, prostitutes, and the mentally ill.

Young Jimmie died of tuberculosis only three months after their arrival, leaving Annie grief-stricken. Adding to her misery, Annie was gradually losing her vision to trachoma, an eye disease. Although not completely blind, Annie had very poor vision and would be plagued with eye problems for the rest of her life.

When she was 14, Annie begged visiting officials to send her to school. She was lucky, for they agreed to take her out of the poorhouse and send her to the Perkins Institute. Annie had a lot of catching up to do. She learned to read and write, then later learned Braille and the manual alphabet (a system of hand signs used by the deaf).

After graduating first in her class, Annie was given the job that would determine the course of her life -- teacher to Helen Keller. Without any formal training to teach a deaf-blind child, 20-year-old Annie Sullivan arrived at the Keller home on March 3, 1887. It was a day that Helen Keller later referred to as "my soul's birthday."1

A Battle of Wills

Teacher and pupil were both very strong-willed and frequently clashed. One of the first of these battles revolved around Helen's behavior at the dinner table, where she roamed freely and grabbed food from the plates of others. Dismissing the family from the room, Annie locked herself in with Helen. Hours of struggle ensued, during which Annie insisted Helen eat with a spoon and sit in her chair.

In order to distance Helen from her parents (who gave in to her every demand), Annie proposed that she and Helen move out of the house temporarily. They spent about two weeks in the "annex," a small house on the Keller property. Annie knew that if she could teach Helen self-control, Helen would be more receptive to learning.

Helen fought Annie on every front, from getting dressed and eating to going to bed at night. Eventually, Helen resigned herself to the situation, becoming calmer and more cooperative. Now the teaching could begin. Annie constantly spelled words into Helen's hand, using the manual alphabet to name the items she handed to Helen. Helen seemed intrigued, but did not yet realize that what they were doing was more than a game.

Helen Keller's Breakthrough

On the morning of April 5, 1887, Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller were outside at the water pump, filling a mug with water. Annie pumped the water over Helen's hand while repeatedly spelling “w-a-t-e-r” into her hand. Helen suddenly dropped the mug. As Annie later described it, "a new light came into her face." 2 She understood.

All the way back to the house, Helen touched objects and Annie spelled their names into her hand. Before the day was over, Helen had learned 30 new words. It was just the beginning of a very long process, but a door had been opened for Helen.

Annie also taught her to how to write and how to read Braille. By the end of that summer, Helen had learned more than 600 words.

Fame for Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan

Annie Sullivan sent regular reports on Helen Keller's progress to the director of the Perkins Institute. He released Helen's story to the press, making Helen and Annie famous overnight. The public was captivated by Helen's accomplishments, although some newspapers greatly exaggerated her capabilities, claiming that she played piano and could distinguish colors by touch.

Helen was frequently photographed for the newspapers. Annie made certain that the photographs were always taken of Helen's right profile because her left eye protruded and was obviously blind, whereas Helen appeared almost normal on the right side.

On a visit to the Perkins Institute in 1888, Helen met other blind children for the first time. She returned to Perkins the following year and stayed for several months of study.

High School Years

Helen Keller dreamed of attending college and was determined to get into Radcliffe, a women's university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, she would first need to complete high school. Helen attended a high school for the deaf in New York City, then later transferred to a school in Cambridge. Due to her fame, Helen had her tuition and living expenses paid for by wealthy benefactors.

Keeping up with school work challenged both Helen and Annie. Copies of books in Braille were rarely available, requiring that Annie read the books, then spell them into Helen's hand. Helen would then type out notes using her Braille typewriter. It was a grueling process.

Helen withdrew from the school after two years, completing her studies with a private tutor. She gained admission to Radcliffe in 1900, making her the first deaf-blind person to attend college.

Life as a Coed

College was somewhat disappointing for Helen Keller. She was unable to form friendships both because of her limitations and the fact that she lived off campus, which further isolated her. The rigorous routine continued, in which Annie worked at least as much as Helen. As a result, Annie suffered severe eyestrain.

Helen found the courses very difficult and struggled to keep up with her workload. Although she detested math, Helen did enjoy English classes and received praise for her writing. Before long, she would be doing plenty of writing. Editors from Ladies' Home Journal offered Helen three thousand dollars -- an enormous sum at the time -- to write a series of articles about her life.

Overwhelmed by the task of writing the articles, Helen admitted she needed help. Friends introduced her to John Macy (picture), an editor and English teacher at Harvard. Macy quickly learned the manual alphabet and began to work with Helen on editing her work. Certain that Helen's articles could successfully be turned into a book, Macy negotiated a deal with a publisher. The Story of My Life was published in 1903, when Helen was only 22 years old. Helen graduated from Radcliffe with honors in June 1904.

Annie Sullivan Marries John Macy

John Macy remained friends with Helen and Annie after the book's publication. He found himself falling in love with Annie Sullivan, although she was eleven years his senior. Annie had feelings for him as well, but wouldn't accept his proposal until he assured her that Helen would always have a place in their home. They were married in May 1905 and the trio moved into a farmhouse in Massachusetts.

The pleasant farmhouse was reminiscent of the home Helen had grown up in. Macy arranged a system of ropes out in the yard so that Helen could safely take walks by herself. Soon, Helen was at work on her second memoir, The World I Live In, with John Macy as her editor. By all accounts, although Helen and Macy were close in age and spent a lot of time together, they were never more than friends.

An active member of the Socialist Party, John Macy encouraged Helen to read books on socialist and communist theory. Helen joined the Socialist Party in 1909; she also supported the women's suffrage movement. Helen's third book, a series of essays defending her political views, did poorly. Worried about their dwindling funds, Helen and Annie decided to go on a lecture tour.

Helen and Annie Go On the Road

Helen had taken speaking lessons over the years and had made some progress, but only those closest to her could understand her speech. Annie would need to interpret Helen's speech for the audience. Another concern was Helen's appearance. She was very attractive and always well dressed, but her eyes were obviously abnormal. Unbeknownst to the public, Helen had her eyes surgically removed and replaced by prosthetic ones prior to the start of the tour in 1913.

The tour appearances consisted of a well-scripted routine. Annie spoke about her years with Helen, then Helen spoke, only to have Annie interpret what she had said. At the end, they took questions from the audience. The tour was successful, but exhausting for Annie. After taking a break, they went back on tour two more times.

Annie's marriage suffered from the strain as well. She and John Macy separated permanently in 1914. Helen and Annie hired a new assistant, Polly Thomson, in 1915, in an effort to relieve Annie of some of her duties.

Helen Finds Love

In 1916, the women hired Peter Fagan as a secretary to accompany them on their tour while Polly was out of town. After the tour, Annie became seriously ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. While Polly took Annie to a rest home in Lake Placid, plans were made for Helen to join her mother and sister, Mildred, in Alabama. For a brief time, Helen and Peter were alone together at the farmhouse, where Peter confessed his love for Helen and asked her to marry him.

The couple tried to keep their plans a secret, but when they traveled to Boston to obtain a marriage license, the press obtained a copy of the license and published a story about Helen's engagement. Kate Keller was furious and brought Helen back to Alabama with her. Although Helen was 36 years old at the time, her family was very protective of her and disapproved of any romantic relationship. Several times, Peter attempted to reunite with Helen, but her family would not let him near her. At one point, Mildred's husband threatened Peter with a gun if he did not get off his property.

Helen and Peter were never together again. Later in life, Helen described the relationship as her "little island of joy surrounded by dark waters."3

The World of Showbiz

Annie recovered from her illness, which had been misdiagnosed as tuberculosis, and returned home. With their financial difficulties mounting, Helen, Annie, and Polly sold their house and moved to Forest Hills, New York in 1917. Helen received an offer to star in a film about her life, which she readily accepted. The 1920 movie, Deliverance, was absurdly melodramatic and did poorly at the box office.

In dire need of a steady income, Helen and Annie, now 40 and 54 respectively, next turned to vaudeville. They reprised their act from the lecture tour, but this time they did it in glitzy costumes and full stage makeup, alongside various dancers and comedians. Helen enjoyed the theater, but Annie found it vulgar. The money, however, was very good and they stayed in vaudeville until 1924.

American Foundation for the Blind

That same year, Helen became involved with an organization that would employ her for much of the rest of her life. The newly-formed American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) sought a spokesperson and Helen seemed the perfect candidate. She drew crowds whenever she spoke in public and became very successful at raising money for the organization. Helen also convinced Congress to approve more funding for books printed in Braille.

Taking time off from her duties at the AFB in 1927, Helen began work on another memoir, Midstream, which she completed with the help of an editor.

Losing "Teacher" and Polly

Annie Sullivan's health deteriorated over several years' time. She became completely blind and could no longer travel, leaving both women entirely reliant upon Polly. Annie Sullivan died in October 1936 at the age of 70. Helen was devastated to have lost the woman whom she had known only as "Teacher," and who had given so much to her.

After the funeral, Helen and Polly took a trip to Scotland to visit Polly's family. Returning home to a life without Annie was difficult for Helen, so profound was her loss. Life was made easier when Helen learned that she would be taken care of financially for life by the AFB, which built a new home for her in Connecticut.

Helen continued her travels around the world through the 1940s and 1950s accompanied by Polly, but the women, now in their seventies, began to tire of travel. In 1957, Polly suffered a severe stroke. She survived, but had suffered brain damage and could no longer function as Helen's assistant. Two caretakers were hired to come and live with Helen and Polly. In 1960, after spending 46 years of her life with Helen, Polly Thomson died.

Twilight Years

Helen Keller settled into a quieter life, enjoying visits from friends and her daily martini before dinner. In 1960, she was intrigued to learn of a new play on Broadway that told the dramatic story of her early days with Annie Sullivan. The Miracle Worker was a smash hit and was made into an equally popular movie in 1962.

Strong and healthy all of her life, Helen became frail in her eighties. She suffered a stroke in 1961 and developed diabetes.

In 1964, Helen received the highest honor awarded to a U.S. citizen, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given to her by President Lyndon Johnson. On June 1, 1968, Helen Keller died in her home at the age of 87 after suffering a heart attack. Her funeral service, held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., was attended by twelve hundred mourners.

Notes

1. Helen Keller as quoted in Dorothy Herrmann, Helen Keller: A Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) 58.
2. Annie Sullivan in a letter to Sophia C. Hopkins on April 5, 1887.
3. Helen Keller in the chapter titled “In the Whirlpool” of her book, Midstream: My Later Life.
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