Editorial Feature

The Inspiring Story of Helen Keller

Discover the legacy of the author, political activist and lecturer

Helen Keller (1880–1968) was an American author, political activist and lecturer. At 19 months old, Keller contracted an unknown illness described by doctors as "an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain", which is now thought to have been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness left her both deaf and blind, completely shaping the way Keller would live her life.

Living in Tuscumbia, Alabama, by the age of seven Keller had already developed more than 60 home signs (self-developed gestures created in order to communicate) that she could use with her family. She also learned how to tell which person was walking into a room from the vibrations of their footsteps.

Despite being blind and deaf, her family were determined she have the same opportunities as everyone else and so in 1886, inspired by an account in Charles Dickens’ American Notes of the successful education of a deaf and blind woman, they sent Keller and her father Arthur H. Keller to find physician J. Julian Chisolm (an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist) for advice. After being told to get in touch with the Perkins Institute for the Blind, the school’s director Michael Anagnos 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, where Sullivan grew from governess to companion.

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan and actor Joseph Jefferson (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

It was 1887 by the time Sullivan and Keller first met at the girl’s house and teaching began with showing Keller to communicate by spelling words into her hand. The first word was “doll” for the doll Sullivan had bought Keller as a present.

At first it was difficult because Keller didn't realize that every object had a word uniquely identifying it. A breakthrough moment came when Keller realized the motions Sullivan made on her one palm, while cool water ran over her other palm, symbolized the idea of water. She quickly demanded to know the names of all the other familiar objects in her world.

From that point on Keller flourished in her education. In 1894, Keller and Sullivan moved to New York to attend the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf, and then to Boston two years later to be taught by Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf.

Helen Keller (From the collection of Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery)

Soon after, Keller entered the Cambridge School for Young Ladies and then in 1900 gained admittance to Radcliffe College, Harvard University. Keller’s education was paid for by Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers and his wife, who she was introduced to via her friend American author Mark Twain. Keller and Twain were firm friends for around 16 years and she was able to recognize Twain in a room from the smell of his cigars.

Those who didn’t know Keller well viewed her as isolated, but she was very in touch with the outside world. She was able to enjoy music by feeling the vibrations of the beat and she was able to have a strong connection with animals through touch. She was delayed at picking up language, but that did not stop her from having a voice.

In 1904, at the age of 24, Keller was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree and throughout her education she had learnt to speak, leading her to give speeches and lectures on aspects of her life. Keller also learnt to “hear” other people’s speeches, by reading their lips with her hands. She also became proficient at using braille and reading sign language with her hands.

Helen Keller (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

After studying, Keller used her experiences and channelled them into becoming a speaker and author, and she became an advocate for people with disabilities. She was also politically active and considered herself a suffragette, pacifist and radical socialist, as well as a supporter of birth control.

As a member of the Socialist Party, Keller actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working class from 1909 to 1921. Many of her speeches and writings were about women’s right to vote and the impacts of war. Always trying to improve, she had speech therapy in order to have her voice heard better by the public. With her radical views, the Rockefeller press refused to print her articles, but she protested until her work was finally published.

Keller also sought to make even more of a difference and in 1915 age 35, she and George A Kessler founded the Helen Keller International Organization, which is devoted to research in vision, health and nutrition. Five years later, Keller went on to help found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is "to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States."

Helen Keller in sculptor Jo Davidson's studio studying the bust of reporter Ernie Plyle (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Helen Keller (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

In the years and decades following, Keller continued to make her voice heard through various books (she published 12 in total) and the talks she held. In total she travelled to over 40 countries, mostly accompanied by her lifelong companion Sullivan, who had remained a huge part of Keller’s life up until her death in 1936, when Keller held her hand in her final moments.

Keller devoted much of her later life to raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind, but after suffering a series of strokes in 1961 had to spend her remaining years at home. In 1964, President Lyndon B Johnson awarded Keller the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the United States’ two highest civilian honors. The following year she was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the New York World’s Fair.

Helen Keller at 71 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Keller died in her sleep on June 1, 1968 at her home Arcan Ridge in Connecticut, a few weeks short of her 88th birthday. A service was held in her honor at the National Cathedral in Washington DC and after cremation her ashes were placed next to her companion Sullivan.

Keller’s lasting impact can be felt in the legacy of works she published, the speeches she made and the organisations she founded. Keller was a role model and proved to the world that deaf people are able to communicate just like everyone else and showed people they are just as capable given the right tools to do so.

Helen Keller (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
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