June 27, 1880: Helen Keller is born in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Helen’s father was the son of former Confederate Captain Arthur H. Keller and Kate Adams Keller. Helen was born at the family plantation, Ivy Green. Her mother was Robert E. Lee’s cousin and the daughter of a Confederate general. Helen was born a healthy baby and remained so until she was 19 months old. She was then struck by a disease described as “an acute congestion of the stomach or brain.” Modern doctors have thought the disease was either scarlet fever or meningitis. Helen was not ill for very long, however, she was left both blind and deaf as a result of the illness.
The toddler was befriended by the cook’s daughter, six-year-old Martha Washington. They communicated using signs and eventually, the two children had over 60 home signs used to converse. This is said to have been crucial to Helen’s ability to later converse with her tutor. The Keller family brought their daughter to Baltimore, after hearing about another blind child being successfully educated. Laura Bridgman had been treated by Dr. J. Julian Chisolm. He consulted with the Kellers and sent them to Alexander Graham Bell who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell sent them to Perkins Institute for the Blind and this is where they were introduced to Anne Sullivan. Sullivan, only twenty years old, was sent to help young Helen.
Anne arrived at Helen’s house in March 1887. She immediately began spelling words into the young girl’s hand. D-o-l-l. She handed the doll to Helen, but the relationship was not clear to the child. The connection between sign and word came when Anne held her hands under water while continually spelling the word. Once the relationship between Anne’s sign against Helen’s palm and the words they represented became clear, Helen was off and running. She began schooling at Perkins in May 1888.
Helen became a successful author, political activist, and lecturer. She was the first blind-deaf person to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree. Her life story has been told in the play and movie, The Miracle Worker. Helen was a pacifist, a socialist, and campaigned for women’s suffrage and workers’ rights. She authored 12 books and many articles. While visiting Japan, she was taken with the breed of dog from Akita Prefecture. She was given one to bring home and when it fell ill and died, a second dog was offered. She is credited with bring the peaceful and loyal dogs to America. She died in her sleep in 1968 at the age of 87.
All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.
Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.
I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.
Once I knew only darkness and stillness… my life was without past or future… but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living. – all from Helen Keller
Also on this day: