Helen Keller, even though she was unable to hear or see, was famous from the age of 8 until her death in 1968. Her wide range of political, cultural, and intellectual interests and activities ensured that she knew people in all spheres of life.
Leading personalities were her friends
She counted leading personalities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries among her friends and acquaintances. These included Eleanor Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Albert Einstein, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Charlie Chaplin, John F. Kennedy, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Katharine Cornell, and Jo Davidson to name but a few.
Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama and died June 1, 1968 in Westport, CT.
She was the first of two daughters born to Arthur H. Keller and Katherine Adams Keller. She also had two older stepbrothers. Keller’s 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.
Contracted brain fever
Keller was born with her senses of sight and hearing, and started speaking when she was just 6 months old. She started walking at the age of 1.
In 1882, however, Keller contracted an illness—called “brain fever” by the family doctor—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, Keller’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. Keller had lost both her sight and hearing. She was just 18 months old.
2nd House Built in Tuscumbia
As Keller 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 type of sign language, and by the time Keller was 7, they had invented more than 60 signs to communicate with each other.
But Keller 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.
Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan
Saw a specialist
Looking for answers and inspiration, in 1886, Keller’s mother came across a travelogue by Charles Dickens, American Notes. She read of the successful education of another deaf and blind child, Laura Bridgman, and soon dispatched Keller and her father to Baltimore, Maryland to see specialist Dr. J. Julian Chisolm.
After examining Keller, Chisolm recommended that she see Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell met with Keller and her parents, and suggested that they travel to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts.
There, the family met with the school’s director, Michael Anaganos. He suggested Helen work with one of the institute’s most recent graduates, Anne Sullivan. And so began a 49-year relationship between teacher and pupil.
Alexander Bell talking to Helen Keller with family and friends
Started with the gift of a doll
The story of how Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, broke through the isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language, allowing the girl to blossom as she learned to communicate, has become widely known through the dramatic depictions of the play and film The Miracle Worker.
In March 1887, Sullivan went to Keller’s home in Alabama and immediately went to work. She began by teaching Helen finger spelling, starting with the word “doll,” to help Keller understand the gift of a doll she had brought along.
Helen Keller at her home 1887
Helen refused to cooperate
Other words would follow. At first, Keller was curious, then defiant, refusing to cooperate with Sullivan’s instruction. When Keller did cooperate, Sullivan 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 Keller’s frustration grew, the tantrums increased. Finally, Sullivan demanded that she and Keller be isolated from the rest of the family for a time, so that Keller could concentrate only on Sullivan’s instruction. They moved to a cottage on the plantation.
Ivy Green Rose & Honeysuckle House Helen Keller House, 300 West North Commons, Tuscumbia, Colbert County, AL
In a dramatic struggle, Sullivan taught Keller the word “water”; she helped her make the connection between the object and the letters by taking Keller out to the water pump, and placing Keller’s hand under the spout.
While Sullivan moved the lever to flush cool water over Keller’s hand, she spelled out the word w-a-t-e-r on Helen’s other hand. Keller understood and repeated the word in Sullivan’s hand. She then pounded the ground, demanding to know its “letter name.” Sullivan followed her, spelling out the word into her hand. Keller moved to other objects with Sullivan in tow. By nightfall, she had learned 30 words.
Helen toiled 25 years to learn to speak
In 1890, 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 that others could understand her. From 1894 to 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.
Around 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.
Bedroom at Ivy Green
Friend with Mark Twain
One of them was the writer Mark Twain, who was very impressed with her. They became friends. Twain introduced her to his friend Henry H. Rogers, a Standard Oil executive. Rogers was so impressed with Keller’s talent, drive and determination that he agreed to pay for her to attend Radcliff College. There, she was accompanied by Sullivan, who sat by her side to interpret 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 Sullivan’s 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, cum laude, from Radcliffe in 1904, at the age of 24.
Helen Keller and Peter Fagan
Helen Keller’s chance for love
In 1916, Peter Fagan was hired as a secretary to accompany Helen Keller and her assistant Polly Thompson. After the tour, Annie Sullivan 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
Helen Keller was a prolific author
A prolific author, Keller was well-traveled and outspoken in her convictions. A member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, she campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism, and other radical left causes. She was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971.
Helen Keller’s birthplace in West Tuscumbia, Alabama is now a museum and sponsors an annual “Helen Keller Day”.
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