Struck both deaf and blind at nineteen months by a raging brain fever, Helen Keller might have been consigned to an anonymous life in an asylum but for her own native intelligence and a resourceful mother, who had her examined by Alexander Graham Bell and other experts. They sent Anne Sullivan, a graduate of Perkins School for the Blind, to Keller’s Alabama home to act as a governess for seven-year-old Helen. Ever after called “Teacher,” Sullivan would remain with Keller for the rest of her life.
She began calming the child’s wild behavior and then set about developing communication methods with this girl who—because she could neither hear nor see—also did not speak. Touch was the significant sense that remained, and Sullivan expanded that to its fullest capacity with a manipulative alphabet. Bright as she was, Helen began to comprehend the system within two weeks, and the door to understanding her world was opened.
The following year, Sullivan took Helen to Boston and the Perkins School, which publicized this remarkable child. Boston newspapers chronicled her achievements as she learned not only to read Braille but also to write with a specially made typewriter, and Helen Keller thus became well known while she was still very young. At fourteen, she went to New York for two years where she improved upon her speaking ability and again made a major publicity impact, and then returned to Massachusetts to enroll in mainstream education at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies.
Two years of intensive tutoring followed that experience, for Helen wished to go to college, and—since educational backgrounds were inconsistent in this era, especially among women—colleges routinely required rigorous entrance examinations. With Sullivan’s persistent tutoring, Keller passed her tests and was admitted to Radcliffe College at age twenty. Sullivan accompanied her to classes to interpret, and Keller completed her work within the normal four years, graduating cum laude in 1904.
She had published her first books, The Story of My Life (1902) and Optimism (1903), prior to graduation, and afterwards she embarked upon a career of writing, lecturing and opinion-making. Eventually the author of a dozen books and numerous articles in major magazines, she was especially effective in urging treatment of newborns to prevent the blindness that is caused by a mother’s venereal disease. Her candid stance on this subject, beginning already in 1906, gave millions of women the permission they needed to speak of what had long been a forbidden topic.
Sullivan’s relatively brief marriage changed her name to Macy, but made little other change in the strong bond between the two women— except that John Macy seems to have been responsible for making Keller politically aware. From that time, Keller not only supported the Suffrage Movement, but also called herself a Socialist and wrote of that cause—despite accepting an annual stipend from industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
With her appearance at the 1915 San Francisco Exposition, Keller added to her credentials as a national figure and continued to use that platform for liberal political causes, especially during World War I. Her celebrity was recognized by the infant movie business, which featured the story of her life, Deliverance, in the last year of the war. The postwar years slowly brought a moderation of her political views, especially after she became affiliated with the new American Foundation for the Blind in 1924. She eventually raised a two million dollar endowment for that organization.
“Teacher” died in 1936, but Keller, with the support of other aides, including Polly Thompson, continued the international travel that resulted in her invariable listings as one of the world’s most-admired women. Supported by the Foundation, she lobbied for the blind and worked on the development of talking books. Though over sixty during World War II, she toured military hospitals and provided hope to soldiers whose misfortunes paled compared with being both deaf and blind.
A second film on her life, made with a backing from Katherine Cornell, won the Academy Award in 1955; The Miracle Worker; which centered on Sullivan, won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize as a play and was made into a movie two years later. Keller’s voice continued to her heard into her eighties, and she was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. When she died in Connecticut at eighty-eight, Helen Keller was known throughout the world as a model of courage and capability.
Her birthplace at Tuscumbia, Alabama is now a museum, while other material on Keller is preserved at both Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts and at the American Foundation for the Blind in New York.