Helen Keller was an American author and activist who defied all odds to become the first deaf blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree. After an illness in her childhood robbed her of her ability to see and hear, Helen was miraculously taught how to communicate by her instructor Anne Sullivan. The events of their extraordinary story are widely known through the play and film titled The Miracle Worker. Keller went on to become a prominent author; and social and political activist. She was a world renowned personality and had an eventful life. She was caught in a plagiarism controversy when she was only 11 years old; had a love affair with a reporter; and traveled to numerous countries giving speeches and meeting world leaders. Know more about the childhood, education, family, life, work and death of Helen Keller through these 10 interesting facts.
#1 Her father served in the Confederate army during the American Civil War
Born on 27th June 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Helen Adams Keller was the first child of Arthur H. Keller and his second wife Kate Adams. Arthur’s first wife Sarah E. Rosser died in 1877. He had two sons from his first marriage, James and William Simpson. Arthur and Kate had two more children after Helen, Mildred Campbell and Phillip Brooks. Arthur Keller had served in the Confederate army during the American Civil War. After the war, in which the family lost most of its wealth, he edited a local newspaper called the North Alabamian. Kate Adams was the daughter of Charles W. Adams, a Confederate general. Helen’s paternal grandmother was second cousin to Robert E. Lee, the famous general of the Confederate Army. One of Helen Keller’s ancestors was the first teacher for the deaf in Zurich. Keller remarked on the coincidence in her autobiography stating, “that there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.”
#2 Helen became deaf and blind due to an illness she contracted at a young age
Helen Keller was born a healthy child with no disability. However, when she was 19 months old, she contracted an illness which the doctors described as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain”. It is now thought to be probably scarlet fever or meningitis. Helen miraculously survived the illness but lost both her hearing and her eyesight. Due to the disabilities, Helen couldn’t receive any guidance which resulted in her becoming a wild and unruly child. She used to frequently throw tantrums smashing things within her reach; and kicked and bit when she was prevented from doing something. Relatives even suggested to the family to have her institutionalized.
#3 The Kellers were directed to Perkins Institute by the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell
In 1886, Helen’s mother, Kate Adams read a travelogue by Charles Dickens titled American Notes in which there was an account of another deaf and blind woman, Laura Bridgman, who was able to be successfully educated. This led to Kate sending her husband, along with her daughter, to physician J. Julian Chisolm for advice; who in turn referred the Kellers to Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell advised them to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where Bridgman had been educated. The director of Perkins Institute, Michael Anagnos, asked her 20-year-old former student Anne Mansfield Sullivan, who was partially blind herself, to become the instructor of Helen. Anne Sullivan arrived at Keller’s house on March 3, 1887, the day later described by Helen Keller as the day her life changed.
#4 The watershed moment in her learning experience came when Anne taught her to spell “water”
Anne Sullivan persuaded Arthur Keller to let her have complete charge over Helen without any interference. She removed Helen from the main house and made her live alone with her in the nearby cottage. She began to teach Helen to communicate by spelling words into her hand beginning with the word “d-o-l-l”. However, Helen failed to realize the purpose of finger spelling and even broke a mug when Anne was trying to teach her the word for “mug”. The famous watershed moment came on 5 April 1887 when Anne took Helen to the water pump outside and while spelling “water” into Helen’s palm, let water run over the girl’s other hand. Helen finally got it and quickly touched the earth to demand its letters. She then began to excitedly ask her teacher words for other familiar objects. Helen’s ability to learn improved at an astonishing rate and the following month she moved with Anne to Boston and began attending the Perkins Institute for the Blind.
#5 She became involved in a plagiarism controversy when she was 11
At the age of 11, Helen Keller wrote a short story titled “The Frost King”. Sullivan sent the story to Michael Anagnos, who in turn published it in The Mentor, the Perkins alumni magazine. The Goodson Gazette, a journal on deaf-blind education, published the story but was informed that it was a copy of a story titled “Frost Fairies” by Margaret Canby. The editor of Gazette wrote that this was a deliberate fraud. Helen Keller maintained that she had no memory of the Canby story being read to her but a Perkins teacher claimed that Keller admitted that she had plagiarized the story. This led to a huge uproar and an in-house trial at Perkins. 8 teachers interrogated Keller for two hours and fought the issue to a draw. Though the tie-breaking vote was cast by Anagnos in Keller’s favor, he never regained faith in Sullivan and Keller; and described them years later as “a living lie”. Helen Keller was deeply disturbed by the episode and never wrote fiction again. Mark Twain was touched when he read about the incident and referred to people who attacked Helen as “a collection of decayed human turnips”. He pointed out that he had himself committed a similar incident of unwitting plagiarism.
#6 Helen Keller was the first deaf blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree
Helen Keller was determined to go to college and she entered Cambridge School for Young Ladies in 1896 to prepare for college. In 1900, Keller gained admittance to the famous Radcliffe College in Cambridge. During her junior year at Radcliffe, she wrote her autobiography The Story of My Life. Published in 1903 when Keller was 22, it has since been widely published and is still in print in over fifty languages. In 1904, Helen Keller graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Radcliffe becoming the first deaf blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree. Keller went on to become an accomplished writer and a prominent social and political activist. She wrote 12 published books and numerous articles; co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); and actively campaigned in support for the rights of the working class and women.
#7 She co-founded HKI and worked for AFB for more than 40 years
Helen Keller was a socialist and considered a radical for her political views. She was friends with many famous figures, including Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain. She was a world renowned speaker and traveled to over 40 countries on five continents making appearances and giving motivational speeches. Her life story, achievements and speeches provided inspiration to millions of people with disability. She met every US President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson; and several world leaders including Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru and Golda Meir. She co-founded Helen Keller International (HKI) and was a lifelong ambassador of the organization. HKI, which is still active, combats the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition. Keller was also a member of American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). She worked for AFB for more than 40 years and devoted much of her later life to raising funds for the organization.
#8 She could experience music by placing her fingertips on a resonant tabletop
Helen Keller was determined to communicate with people as conventionally as possible. She expressed a desire to speak when she was a kid but though she learned to speak, she remained dissatisfied with her spoken voice throughout her life as it was hard to understand. Keller’s sense of touch was extremely subtle and she could understand people’s speech by reading their lips with her hands. She was proficient at using braille and could experience music played close by, by placing her fingertips on a resonant tabletop. The famous string quartet, Zoellner Quartet, played music for her as an experiment in 1917 and were impressed by her ability to interpret the music. At the age of 30, on the urging of her family, Helen Keller had her eyes surgically removed and replaced them with more visually appealing false eyes.
#9 Helen Keller had a love affair with a reporter named Peter Fagan
In 1916, when Helen Keller was in her thirties, Anne Sullivan fell seriously ill and was temporarily replaced by Peter Fagan, a twenty-nine year old Boston Herald reporter. Helen’s new private secretary had several common things with her including her passion for politics. He spelled content of letters, newspaper articles and books into Helen’s open palm. The couple soon fell in love. During the time, society strongly believed that women with disabilities should not marry or have normal romantic desires. This view was shared by Helen’s family and her teacher. Keller defied them by getting secretly engaged and attempting elopement with Fagan but ultimately her parents forcibly removed her from the relationship and she stayed single throughout her life.
#10 She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964
Helen Keller had a 49 year long relationship with Anne Sullivan who evolved from being her instructor, to governess and finally companion. Sullivan died in 1936 in a coma with Keller holding her hand. She was replaced by Polly Thomson, who had been initially hired for housekeeping. Thomson had a stroke in 1957 and Keller’s companion for the rest of her life was a nurse named Winnie Corbally. Helen Keller suffered from a series of strokes in 1961. She spent the last years of her life at her home. On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson conferred Keller with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States. Helen Keller died in her sleep on June 1, 1968 at her home in Easton, Connecticut. She was 87 years old. In 1999, the TIME magazine included Keller in its list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.