June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968
►Author, Activist, and Lecturer
►She was the first ever deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor’s degree.
►Member of: Socialist Party of America & Industrial Workers of the World
►Causes supported: Women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism
►She was ceremoniously placed in the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971.
►June 27: Helen Keller Day in Pennsylvania, US
►At the age of 75, she was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the Harvard University.
Helen’s father then took her to Dr. J. Julian Chisolm, an ENT specialist in Baltimore, who referred them to visit none other than Alexander Graham Bell.
» Here, Bell recognized Helen as a bright and intellectual child and suggested them to get in touch with the Perkins School for the Blind, South Boston.
» This was the same school that Laura Bridgman had earlier attended.
It was here that Anne Sullivan, a 20-year-old girl, came into the picture. Sullivan was visually impaired and had received education from the very same institute.
Appointed as Helen’s instructor and governess, a heart-touching story of their companionship began in the coming year and continued for almost half a century.
Before this point, Helen had only 60 home signs with which she would communicate with her parents.
Anne tried to teach Helen the basis of language by making her understand that everything had a particular word assigned it.
» The tough journey began with the word ‘doll’ and continued till Anne taught her the word ‘water’ by spelling it out on Helen’s palm and then pouring cold water over it.
» The difficult start was overcome as Helen understood the concept of words and soon began picking up new ones. Her inquisitiveness soared as she tired out Anne by learning 30 new words the very same day!
What Anne has accomplished was a crucial milestone as during those days there was no completely effective method of communication for the deaf and blind.
Helen went for her first vacation with Anne to Cape Cod. It was her first incidence of swimming in the ocean when she was washed off by a wave. As Anne got her out of the water, Helen asked as to who added salt to the water!
Helen’s communication skills improved further more as she learned Braille.
She was not an official student there and was nowhere registered within the Institute’s records.
Helen Keller was fond of writing letters. She wrote letters with the help of a grooved writing board. The grooves helped her maintain uniformity in the size of her alphabets while ensuring a single line of text. Many of her letters were included in her autobiography, The Story Of My Life comprising almost 100 pages of the same.
By the end of the year, Keller wrote her first story, The Frost King and presented it to Michael Anagnos, the Principal of Perkins as a gift on his birthday.
» Thereafter, The Frost King was published in the school subscription, ‘The Mentor’.
» However, sometime down the line, its story was found to be similar to that of The Frost Fairies by Margaret T. Canby.
» Being charged of plagiarism, Keller was devastated. Though Anagnos ruled the argument in her favor momentarily, the trust he placed in Sullivan and Keller was broken. Years later, he was cited as calling them a ‘living lie’.
Keller was shattered over the incident and had a nervous breakdown. It was after this story that she never tried her hand at fiction again.
Next, they resided in Hulton, Pennsylvania for a short duration where a neighbor taught Helen mathematics and grammar.
By the end of 1893, they returned to Tuscumbia.
» Anne Sullivan attended every single lecture along with Helen so as to fingerspell every lesson.
» Despite her obvious hindrances, Helen completed the degree without any special provisions.
» The syllabus, exams, and all other aspects were common for her and other regular students except the fact that she needed special Braille books and papers.
Anne and Helen bought a house in Wrentham, Massachusetts.
Helen gained overnight popularity due to her accomplishments. Throughout her duration at Radcliffe, she had countless visitors, which included various celebrities, high-profile personalities, as well as normal people, who found her story both inspiring and unique.
1913 was an important landmark for Helen and Anne, as it was during this year that they decided on becoming lecturers.
On the other hand, John Macy and Anne Sullivan’s marriage was gradually falling apart.
It is noteworthy that Helen decided to become a lecturer despite the fact that everyone she knew was in favor of teaching the deaf and blind and helping another person in need (just as Anne had chosen to help her).
The highly-acclaimed moving speech by Helen Keller in the Carnegie Hall was also during this year. She spoke for several causes around pacifism and socialism.
In 1914, Polly joined Anne and Helen as Helen’s secretary. Just as Anne, she too remained inseparably with the duo till the very end.
Anne and John separated during this year.
They never officially divorced one another, and Anne never remarried. Thus, till she passed away, she remained Anne Sullivan Macy (informally). Her actual name was Johanna Mansfield Sullivan, which later became Johanna Mansfield Sullivan Macy.
In October 1936, Anne breathed her last. She passed away holding Helen’s hand till the very end.
Helen made a trip to Japan in 1937 and befriended many people out there. During this trip, she delivered 97 lectures in 39 cities. Here, she was specially gifted with a pet dog.
Helen Keller’s Journal was published in 1938.
During 1946, she traveled to several countries and spoke on behalf of the deaf people. Her lectures made an impact, and many government schools were opened to educate deaf and blind people.
Soon after in 1956, the Harvard University honored her with an honorary degree for all her achievements.
In 1964, she was bestowed with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson. However, she couldn’t make it to the ceremony to accept this highest civilian honor.
On June 1, 1968, Helen passed away in her sleep. She was 88. A service was held in Washington D.C., at the National Cathedral, and her ashes were laid next to Anne and Polly – her constant companions.