Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her family lived on a homestead, Ivy Green, that Helen’s grandfather had built decades earlier. She had two younger siblings, Mildred Campbell and Phillip Brooks Keller, two older half-brothers from her father’s prior marriage, James and William Simpson Keller. Her father, Arthur H. Keller, spent many years as an editor for the Tuscumbia North Alabamian, and had served as a captain for the Confederate Army. Her paternal grandmother was the second cousin of Robert E. Lee. Her mother, Kate Adams, was the daughter of Charles W. Adams. Though originally from Massachusetts, Charles Adams also fought for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, earning the rank of colonel (and acting brigadier-general). Her paternal lineage was traced to Casper Keller, a native of Switzerland. One of Helen’s Swiss ancestors was the first teacher for the deaf in Zurich. Keller reflected on this coincidence in her first 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.”
Helen Keller was born with the ability to see and hear. At 19 months old, she contracted an illness described by doctors as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain”, which might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness left her both deaf and blind. At that time, she was able to communicate somewhat with Martha Washington, the six-year-old daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs; by the age of seven, Keller had more than 60 home signs to communicate with her family.
In 1886, Keller’s mother, inspired by an account in Charles Dickens’ American Notes of the successful education of another deaf and blind woman, Laura Bridgman, dispatched young Helen, accompanied by her father, to seek out physician J. Julian Chisolm, an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist in Baltimore, for advice. Chisholm 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, the school where Bridgman had been educated, which was then located in South Boston. Michael Anagnos, the school’s director, asked 20-year-old former student Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired, to become Keller’s instructor. It was the beginning of a 49-year-long relationship during which Sullivan evolved into Keller’s governess and eventually her companion.
Anne Sullivan arrived at Keller’s house in March 1887, and immediately began to teach Helen to communicate by spelling words into her hand, beginning with “d-o-l-l” for the doll that she had brought Keller as a present. Keller was frustrated, at first, because she did not understand that every object had a word uniquely identifying it. In fact, when Sullivan was trying to teach Keller the word for “mug”, Keller became so frustrated she broke the doll. Keller’s big breakthrough in communication came the next month, when she realized that the motions her teacher was making on the palm of her hand, while running cool water over her other hand, symbolized the idea of “water”; she then nearly exhausted Sullivan demanding the names of all the other familiar objects in her world.
Starting in May 1888, Keller attended the Perkins Institute for the Blind. In 1894, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan moved to New York to attend the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf, and to learn from Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. In 1896, they returned to Massachusetts and Keller entered The Cambridge School for Young Ladies before gaining admittance, in 1900, to Radcliffe College, where she lived in Briggs Hall, South House. Her admirer, Mark Twain, had introduced her to Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers, who, with his wife Abbie, paid for her education. In 1904, at the age of 24, Keller graduated from Radcliffe, becoming the first deaf blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She maintained a correspondence with the Austrian philosopher and pedagogue Wilhelm Jerusalem, who was one of the first to discover her literary talent.
Determined to communicate with others as conventionally as possible, Keller learned to speak, and spent much of her life giving speeches and lectures. She learned to “hear” people’s speech by reading their lips with her hands—her sense of touch had become extremely subtle. She became proficient at using braille and reading sign language with her hands as well. Shortly before World War I, with the assistance of the Zoellner Quartet she determined that by placing her fingertips on a resonant tabletop she could experience music played close by.
Anne Sullivan stayed as a companion to Helen Keller long after she taught her. Anne married John Macy in 1905, and her health started failing around 1914. Polly Thomson was hired to keep house. She was a young woman from Scotland who had no experience with deaf or blind people. She progressed to working as a secretary as well, and eventually became a constant companion to Keller. Keller moved to Forest Hills, Queens, together with Anne and John, and used the house as a base for her efforts on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind. Anne Sullivan died in 1936 after a coma, with Keller holding her hand. Keller and Thomson moved to Connecticut. They traveled worldwide and raised funds for the blind. Thomson had a stroke in 1957 from which she never fully recovered, and died in 1960. Winnie Corbally, a nurse who was originally brought in to care for Thompson in 1957, stayed on after her death and was Keller’s companion for the rest of her life.
Keller went on to become a world-famous speaker and author. She is remembered as an advocate for people with disabilities, amid numerous other causes. She was a suffragist, a pacifist, an opponent of Woodrow Wilson, a radical socialist and a birth control supporter. In 1915 she and George Kessler founded the Helen Keller International (HKI) organization. This organization is devoted to research in vision, health and nutrition. In 1920 she helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Keller traveled to 40-some-odd countries with Sullivan, making several trips to Japan and becoming a favorite of the Japanese people. Keller met every U.S. President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson and was friends with many famous figures, including Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain. Keller and Twain were both considered radicals at the beginning of the 20th century, and as a consequence, their political views have been forgotten or glossed over in popular perception.
Keller was a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working class from 1909 to 1921. She supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency. Before reading Progress and Poverty, Helen Keller was already a socialist who believed that Georgism was a good step in the right direction. She later wrote of finding “in Henry George’s philosophy a rare beauty and power of inspiration, and a splendid faith in the essential nobility of human nature.”
Keller wrote a total of 12 published books and several articles. One of her earliest pieces of writing, at age 11, was The Frost King (1891). There were allegations that this story had been plagiarized from The Frost Fairies by Margaret Canby. An investigation into the matter revealed that Keller may have experienced a case of cryptomnesia, which was that she had Canby’s story read to her but forgot about it, while the memory remained in her subconscious. At age 22, Keller published her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1903), with help from Sullivan and Sullivan’s husband, John Macy. It recounts the story of her life up to age 21 and was written during her time in college. Keller wrote The World I Live In in 1908, giving readers an insight into how she felt about the world. Out of the Dark, a series of essays on socialism, was published in 1913.
When Keller was young, Anne Sullivan introduced her to Phillips Brooks, who introduced her to Christianity, Keller famously saying: “I always knew He was there, but I didn’t know His name!” Her spiritual autobiography, My Religion, was published in 1927 and then in 1994 extensively revised and re-issued under the title Light in My Darkness. It advocates the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Christian revelator and theologian who gives a spiritual interpretation of the teachings of the Bible and who claims that the second coming of Jesus Christ has already taken place. Adherents use several names to describe themselves, including Second Advent Christian, Swedenborgian, and New Church.
Keller suffered a series of strokes in 1961 and spent the last years of her life at her home. On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the United States’ two highest civilian honors. In 1965 she was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame at the New York World’s Fair. Keller devoted much of her later life to raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind. She died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, at her home, Arcan Ridge, located in Easton, Connecticut, a few weeks short of her eighty-eighth birthday. A service was held in her honor at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and her ashes were placed there next to her constant companions, Anne Sullivan and Polly Thomson.
- June, 27, 1880
- Tuscumbia, Alabama
- June, 01, 1968
- Eaton, Connecticut
- Washington National Cathedral
- Washington D.C.