Helen Keller

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Biography of Helen Keller is the story of a girl who, before she was two years old, had an illness that made her totally lose her vision and hearing.

Helen Keller’s extraordinary merits

She could never regain either of these two senses. She died at the age of 88 and throughout her life she was deaf and blind.

Despite this severe inability to communicate, Helen Keller graduated from Cambridge High School.

She also received an honors degree from Radcliffe College in 1904, at age 24.

During her adult life, she had an active participation in politics and published several books of editorial success.

How was this incredible prodigy possible? There were three circumstances that favored him:

  • 1st she was endowed with exceptional intelligence, with a privileged brain.
  • 2nd she was born into a family with many financial means, excellent social relations and who went out of her way.
  • 3rd that her life intersected with that of Anne Sullivan, a woman of extraordinary intelligence and inexhaustible generosity. Anne Sullivan was the providential presence that brought Helen Keller out of the dark abyss she found herself in when she became blind and deaf shortly after beginning to live.

Helen Keller’s family

Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Alabama, where her parents owned a farm built by their grandfather in 1820.

The farm was called “Ivy Green“.

Helen Keller casa
Helen Keller’s grandfather’s house, built in 1820 on the farm called “Ivy Green”. Credit: Wikipedia

Her father, Arthur Keller, owned the newspaper “Tuscumbia North Alabamian“; and had served as a captain in the Confederate Army.

He had been married twice; the year after he was widowed by his first wife, he had married Kate Adams, twenty years his junior.

They had three children: Helen (1880), Mildred (1886), and Philip (1891).

Helen’s paternal grandmother belonged to a family of illustrious military men and a Governor of Virginia.

The maternal grandfather, Charles Adams, originally from Massachusetts, was a descendant of the American President, John Adams.

Helen Keller’s father’s ancestors were Swiss who, upon arrival in the New World, acquired considerable tracts of land in Alabama.

Helen Keller’s traumatic illness

At the age of nineteen months, Helen suffered a serious illness that caused her total loss of vision and hearing.

It is difficult to understand the terror that the creature must have felt when she found herself in the dark, seeing nothing and hearing no sound.

Only the touch with her parents and relatives let her know that they were still around.

This inability to communicate was very traumatic for Helen and her family, as the girl was practically uncontrollable for years.

All the multiple attempts to find a cure were unsuccessful.

Helen Keller’s childhood education

In 1885, when Helen was 5 years old, her parents decided to go live on the family farm, in “Ivy Green“, where the girl could enjoy walking in the gardens and looking for contact with animals.

In all that time she was unable to communicate with people, and she had to express her wishes through gestures.

Her father took her to Baltimore to seek advice from otolaryngologist Julian Chisolm.

This doctor found that he could not do anything for Helen and recommended that they go to Washington to consult the scientist Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, and who was working with deaf children.

Graham Bell became very interested in Helen and recommended that she be taken to the “Perkins Institute for the Blind”, a specialized school, in South Boston.

It was 1887 and Helen was already seven years old; her parents decided to follow Graham Bell’s advice and ask the Perkins Institute for help.

From the Institute, they were sent to Anne Sullivan, a young specialist with visual impairment who had graduated there from the Perkins Institute.

Helen Keller knows who her savior was

Anne Sullivan arrived at Helen’s house in March 1887.

Immediately, she requested a separate room for classes, and decided to teach Helen how to communicate with her by spelling words in her hand.

At first, Helen did not understand that there was a word assigned to each object, and she angrily resisted Anne’s teachings.

In fact, when she tried to teach her the word “cup”, Helen was so angry that she broke her cup.

Helen Keller 7 años
Helen Keller when she was 7 years old. Credit: Wikipedia

After a month of patient and repeated attempts by Anne, Helen realized that the movements her teacher made in the palm of her hand while letting fresh water run over her other hand symbolized the concept of “water”.

It was a very exciting time for her to realize that there was a relationship between a word and an object.

Over the days, by the same procedure, she learned to understand some words and verbs, such as: pin, hat, get up, sit and walk.

After a time, Helen Keller used approximately 60 commonly used words.

She had as a regular companion Martha Washington, a black girl, six years older than her, and with whom she used to entertain herself daily.

Helen Keller’s intelligence overcame everything

Helen’s exceptional intelligence made her realize very soon that a word could designate an object, but also an action and also a “feeling”.

HelenKeller Anne Sullivan
Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, in 1888. Credit: Eugenia Tefarikis

From the beginning, Anne Sullivan maintained the standard of addressing her like any other child; with the difference that instead of saying words, she spelled them in her hand.

Her sense of touch was improved in an incredible way, because her “privileged brain” had already taken control.

If Helen was unable to find the right words to express her thoughts, Anne would supply or answer them for herself.

In a next stage, Anne encouraged Helen to take part in the conversations, by spelling words on her hands.

With each passing day, the spelling became more fluid and rewarding for the girl and her family.

Helen’s next challenge was learning to read.

Sullivan provided her with small cards in raised letters with which to form words and make short sentences.

For example, after having found the cards with the words “the doll is in the bed”, she had to put each word on the corresponding object.

Afterward, she had to put the doll in bed, with those words by her side. In this way she associated in her mind the ideas expressed by the words.

Helen Keller was able to start studying

Later, with the help of her teacher, Helen took classes in arithmetic, zoology, and botany.

A few months after the start of these classes, she was able to read and write using the braille system, with the use of her hands, which were becoming increasingly sensitive.

Helen Keller was so fascinated by reading that she used to take books written in Braille at night to sneakily read them under the covers of her bed.

With this wonderful awakening of her ability to communicate, life changed for her and for everyone else; her character radically improved and she became a more loving and kind girl.

Also through the touch of her hands, she learned to read people’s lips and to perceive their movement and vibrations.

The director of the Perkins Institute, surprised and admired by the magnificent results obtained, published some notes in this regard; the names of both wonderful women began to appear on the front pages of specialized publications.

Helen Keller goes to classes at a College

A year after learning to communicate with the hands began, in May 1888, Helen and Anne moved from Alabama to Boston to the Perkins Institute for the Blind.

As you can imagine, Helen’s anxiety about this new experience was maximum, but it was transformed into an immense joy when she verified that all blind children understood the manual alphabet and that they were willing to offer their friendship.

In 1890, Helen learned the story of Ragnhild Kåta, a Norwegian deafblind girl, born in 1873, who had learned to speak at age 14, with the help of a teacher of the deaf, Elias Hofgaard.

Helen was 10 years old and was excited about the idea of achieving that goal.

Helen Keller managed to learn to speak

Fortunately, the Boston “School for the Deaf and Dumb” had recently been founded under the direction of Sarah Fuller and staff trained by Graham Bell in teaching deaf children to speak.

In 1912, Graham Bell had invited María Montessori to New York, in order to learn first-hand about her already famous pedagogical innovations.

Helen Keller Graham Bell
Helen Keller with Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the phone. Credit: Getty Images

Sarah Fuller taught her eleven lessons, using a method called Tadoma, developed from Graham Bell’s instructions.

The teacher pressed her fingers to the girl’s throat, and made a sound, while Helen felt the position and shape that Fuller’s tongue took when speaking; then she must try to imitate her.

Helen Keller practiced this method independently with Sullivan at her side; and after a while, she was able to articulate her throat to utter words.

With this baggage of knowledge, Helen stopped attending classes in schools and began to study with her educator and with private teachers.

The success of her training was due not only to her will and the invaluable company of Anne Sullivan, but also to the economic well-being of her family, who could afford to hire private teachers.

Helen Keller began her studies as a girl

In 1894, her family helped John Wright and Dr. Thomas Humason to found the “Wright-Humason School for the Deaf” in New York. Helen attended elementary school there until 1896.

She then enrolled at the Cambridge Girls’ School in Massachusetts.

Always accompanied by Anne, who helped her with homework and reading books.

In this School she graduated from secondary school in June 1897; and she had the free way to enter the Radcliffe College, in Cambridge.

This was a women’s liberal arts college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and operated as a female institution for Harvard College, which was exclusively male.

This center prided itself on having a particularly intellectual, literary and independent student group.

Helen Keller begins university studies

In July 1897, Helen Keller conducted preliminary tests to enter Radcliffe College.

Although she passed the exams, on the recommendation of the professors, she did not join the institution until 3 years later, in 1900.

Before entering Radcliffe College, their training manuals had to be printed in Braille.

Her studies were funded by Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers and his wife Abbie, who had met her through Mark Twain.

The classrooms were full of people, but the teachers kept a special attention for her, especially in the subjects that presented the most difficulty: algebra and geometry.

Helen Keller decided to write and publish

While in college, Keller began writing her autobiography, titled “The Story of My Life“.

The “Ladies’ Home Journal” published it for the first time; and in 1903, it was published in book format. It has subsequently been translated into 50 languages.

In 1904, she graduated with honors from the University, becoming the first deafblind person to earn a college degree.

Her teacher and friend Anne Sullivan married in the same year John Macy, a young Harvard professor and literary critic.

Upon completion of college, Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan, and Macy moved into a new home in Forest Hills, where Helen wrote three books: “The World I Live In,” “Song of the Stone Wall” and “Out of the Dark”.

At the same time, Helen maintained an assiduous correspondence with the Austrian philosopher and pedagogue Wilhelm Jerusalem, who had published a monograph on the education of deaf-mute children.

Wilhelm Jerusalem was one of the first to discover Helen Keller’s literary talent.

Shortly after marrying Macy, Anne Sullivan burned all the sheets in her journal, for fear of what her husband might think of her.

There was no doubt that it was an irreparable loss, especially considering that this marriage lasted only until 1914.

Although they did not divorce, they never lived together again.

Helen Keller Polly Thompson Anne Sullivan
Polly Thomson, Anne Sullivan, Helen Kelly, and Charles Chaplin. Credit: Pinterest

Helen Keller and her social activities

Polly Thomson entered the lives of Helen and Anne, as their assistant, in 1914.

They formed a magnificent trio and were called the “three musketeers”.

Polly died in her youth, in 1924. She was never forgotten by her friends in this trio of remarkable brave, intelligent women.

At Radcliffe University, Helen began to take an interest in workers’ rights and the precarious working conditions in the factories.

Subsequently, she became associated with women’s socialist movements and supported the causes of Emmeline Pankhurst.

Her southern origin, Alabama, influenced her political views, and she always spoke out against slavery, even though her father from Keller, a typical Sudista, went so far as to say that blacks were not people.

Although Helen never married, a young secretary, Peter Fagan, was attracted to her and proposed to her, which caused Helen discomfort and happiness at the same time.

In her autobiography, she noted: “His love was a radiant sun that shone before my helplessness and isolation“.

But, in the society of the time it was not welcomed by a person with disabilities to marry, and Helen’s family opposed it.

Helen Keller’s popularity and political activities

From 1912 to 1924, she strongly advocated for socialist theories and supported the Russian Revolution and Lenin’s policies.

Her great intelligence was recognized; and the organizers appreciated her presence and her translated speeches.

Her growing popularity among thousands of admirers was greatly resented by this political drift.

An editor for the “Brooklyn Eagle” newspaper wrote against her saying that Helen’s “mistakes” were due to her manifest limitations.

She sent a letter to the newspaper, replying: “At one time, your compliments to me were so generous that I blushed at the memory of them. But now that I support socialism, it reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially responsible for making mistakes. “

“I must have dwarfed my intelligence ever since I met him. Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially deaf and blind, he advocates an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness that we try to prevent“.

Helen Keller personally met all the presidents of the United States, from Grover Cleveland to John F. Kennedy.

Helen Keller Eisenhower
Polly Thomson, Anne Sullivan, Helen Kelly, and Charles Chaplin. Credit: Pinterest

Among her many political and social activities, it is worth mentioning:

  • Her fundamental contribution to the creation of the “American Union for Civil Liberties”, whose purpose was to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to each person by the Constitution and laws of the United States.
  • During the 1920s, Helen Keller began traveling around the country conducting conferences in the company of Sullivan.
  • Together with George Kessler, she participated in the founding of the “Helen Keller International Organization”, an organization dedicated to conducting research on vision, health and nutrition.
  • The fervent defense of people with disabilities.
  • The very active pacifist posture throughout her life.
  • Her writings on controversial topics such as prostitution and syphilis (one of the causes of blindness).
  • Joined organizations recognized for her fight against racism in the United States, including the “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People“.

Helen Keller focused on helping the blind

In 1925, she retired almost completely from political activity to devote herself to working with visually impaired people.

Helen Keller worked at the “American Foundation for the Blind” as a teacher and as a promoter of the rights of blind people, who were often not properly educated and were even sent to nursing homes where they were not educated.

Her efforts were an important factor in changing these conditions.

In 1932, she was appointed Vice President of the “Royal Institute for the Blind” in the United Kingdom.

Last years in the life of Helen Keller

Anne Sullivan died in 1936. She had been her faithful companion for 49 years.

She was in a coma for a time; and Helen did not leave her side and did not stop holding the hand that taught her so much.

Anne’s death was a great loss for Helen, who years before had written: “I offer a trembling supplication to the Lord, because if she leaves, then I really am going to be blind and deaf“.

With the collaboration of Nella Henney, Helen Keller dedicated herself to editing the Memoirs of Anne Sullivan, the great teacher who has been united forever in Helen’s life.

Helen Keller was named Ambassador for International Relations by the “American Foundation for Overseas Blind“; started touring around the world.

Between 1946 and 1957, she visited 35 countries in South America, Europe, and Africa, raising funds for the blind.

After World War II, she visited soldiers who had lost their sight or hearing during combat in order to offer them support and encouragement.

Three years after the atomic bombings, Helen paid a visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as part of her opposition to war program; she was received with affection by more than two million people.

In 1954, she participated in the filming of the documentary “Helen Keller in Her Story“, directed by Nancy Hamilton and narrated by Katharine Cornell. Hamilton won the Oscar for best long documentary.

Helen Keller film 1961
Helen Keller with actress Patty Duke, in 1961. Credit: Wikipedia

In 1961, she suffered a series of strokes that forced her to use a wheelchair.

Because of that, in 1964 she was unable to attend the ceremony where she was awarded the “Presidential Medal of Freedom”, one of the most prestigious civil awards in the United States.

In 1965, during the New York World’s Fair, she was included in the “National Women’s Hall of Fame”.

Hellen Keller died at age 87, in her sleep, on June 1, 1968, at her Arcan Ridge residence in Easton, Connecticut.

She had suffered a heart attack. Her ashes were deposited in the Washington National Cathedral, along with those of Anne Sullivan and Polly Thomson.

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