Keller, Helen, 1880-1968

Alternative names
Birth 1880-06-27
Death 1968-06-01

Biographical notes:

Helen Adams Keller (1880-1968) overcame both blindness and deafness, providing inspiration to many people around the world. She devoted her life to bettering the education and treatment of the blind, the deaf, and the mute, and was a pioneer in educating the public in the prevention of blindness in newborns. When Helen Keller was 19 months old she became ill with a high fever and lost consciousness, becoming deaf and blind. In her autobiography The Story of My Life, a book she first wrote in 1903 at the age of 23, she described her illness: "They called it acute congestion of the stomach and the fever left me as suddenly and mysteriously as it had come. There was great rejoicing in the family that morning, but none, not even the doctor, knew that I should never see or hear again." Despite her loss of sight and hearing Keller learned to do small tasks such as folding laundry and getting things for her mother. She invented a system of signs to make her wishes known. Knowing she was different from other children, she became frustrated and often reacted uncontrollably. She later said, "Sometimes I stood between two persons who were conversing and touched their lips. I could not understand, and was vexed. I moved my lips and gesticulated frantically without result. This made me so angry at times that I kicked and screamed until I was exhausted." Keller needed specialized training but her parents were unable to provide it. As the years passed she became more difficult and less willing to obey her parents. "I was strong, active, indifferent to consequences. I knew my own mind well enough and always had my own way, even if I had to fight tooth and nail for it." When Keller was about six years old her father took her to Washington, D.C., where she was examined by Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who had developed a system of visible speech that helped the deaf to communicate. Bell urged Keller''s father to write the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts, and request a teacher. Anne Sullivan became the teacher who would for many years mentor Keller and teach her to speak. Keller eloquently described her discovery of water in her autobiography. "We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word `water'' first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten--a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew that `w-a-t-e-r'' meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away." This experience opened up a new world for Keller. Her curiosity about the world could not be satisfied, and Sullivan proved to be a patient teacher. Little by little, Keller learned to express herself through the manual alphabet; she next learned to read Braille, a system of writing for the blind that uses characters made up of raised dots. When Keller was 10 years old Sullivan heard about Ragnhild Kaata, a deaf and blind Norwegian child who had learned to speak. Sullivan then took Keller to the Horace Mann School for the Deaf, where she made remarkable progress in learning to speak English and even French and German. While attending the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf and the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Keller studied history, mathematics, literature, astronomy, and physics. She went on to Radcliff College, where she graduated with high honors in 1904. After conquering her own limitations, Keller''s next battle was the public''s indifference to the welfare of the disabled. She devoted the rest of her life to promoting social reforms aimed at bettering the education and treatment of the blind, the deaf, the mute--in effect, many physically challenged people. Keller won many awards and citations for her humanitarian work. Credited with prompting the organization of state commissions for the blind, she helped put a stop to placing deaf and blind individuals in mental asylums. As a pioneer in educating the public in the prevention of blindness of the newborn, she wrote newspaper and magazine articles about the relationship between venereal disease and blindness in newborn infants. She traveled to Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa lecturing about the need to improve the lives of disabled people. In 1929 Keller wrote the second volume of her autobiography, Midstream: My Later Life. Sharing Keller''s achievements as one of the foremost humanitarians of the century was her companion and teacher Anne Sullivan Macy. Even Sullivan''s marriage to John Albert Macy, the editor of Keller''s autobiography, did not interrupt the friendship. Sullivan helped Keller throughout her school and college days, manually spelling lectures and reading assignments into Keller''s palm. Later she accompanied Keller on her lecture tours, giving full support to her pupil and their joint cause of aiding the physically challenged. The partnership was ended only by Sullivan''s death in 1936. Keller died over 30 years later at the age of 88.

Helen Adams Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama on June 27, 1880. At the age of nineteen months, due to an attack of scarlet fever, she lost her sense of sight, hearing and smell. Her father requested a teacher from the Perkins Institute for the Blind. Anne Sullivan, who had been blind herself, became HAK's teacher, and remained her companion and friend until her death in 1936. From 1888, HAK was educated at the Perkins Institute, and at the Horace Mann school. She learned Braille, and eventually to read, write and speak. She did three years of college preparatory work at the Gilman School in Cambridge and entered Radcliffe in 1900. With the aid of Anne Sullivan and other tutors, she took a full program of 17 1/2 courses in cluding Mathematics, Latin, French, German, English and History, and graduated cum laude in 1904. After college she worked extensively on behalf of the blind, and for refugees and the disabled after World War II. HAK was a prolific writer. Among her works were two autobiographies: The Story of My Life (1902), and Midstream-My Later Life (1929). Many honors were conferred on HAK by foreign governments, and by civil, educational and welfare organizations throughout the world. Included among these were the first Radcliffe College Alumnae

From the guide to the Papers of Helen Adams Keller, 1898-2003, (Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute)

At the age of 19 months Helen Keller lost the senses of sight, smell, and hearing, due to an attack of scarlet fever. Helen's parents requested that a teacher from the Perkins Institution in Boston, Massachusetts, be sent to instruct the child soon thereafter. Miss Anne M. Sullivan was sent to Helen's home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, to train her according to the methods of Dr. S. G. Howe. From 1888 onwards, at the Perkins Institution, and under Miss Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School in New York, she not only learned to read, write, and talk, but became proficient to some degree in the ordinary education curriculum, several languages, and mathematics. Unfortunately, no exact record of the steps of her education was kept. In 1900, Miss Keller entered Radcliffe College where, with the aid of tutors and special proctors (and, of course, her friend and teacher Anne Sullivan Macy, who remained with her throughout), Helen graduated cum laude in 1904. After her college education, Miss Keller began working extensively in causes for the blind all over the world. She made many tours and held fund-raising benefits for the American Foundation for the Blind. During and after World War II she was untiring in her efforts to aid blinded veterans, orphans, and refugees. Various honors, awards, and honorary degrees and citations were conferred upon Miss Keller by foreign governments and civic, educational, and welfare organizations throughout the U.S. Helen Keller represents one of the most remarkable cases to date of a person who overcame natural disabilities to develop knowledge and an exceptionally wide general culture. Her writings include: Optimism (1903), "The Song of the Stone Wall" (1910), Helen Keller's Journal (1938), Teacher (1955), and others.

From the guide to the Papers, 1900-1971, (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute)


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  • Authors and publishers
  • Political participation
  • Authors, American--Biography--Sources
  • Blindness
  • Blind
  • Blind--Rehabilitation
  • Women--Education
  • Blind authors
  • Blind--Travel
  • Deaf women
  • New Jerusalem Church
  • Deafblind people--Education
  • Authors, American
  • Teachers of deafblind people
  • Deaf
  • Deafblind people
  • Fund raising
  • American Foundation for the Blind
  • Blind--Education
  • People with disabilities--International cooperation
  • Blind--Employment
  • Lectures and lecturers
  • Blind--Services for
  • Deaf authors
  • Deafblind women


  • Lecturers
  • Authors
  • Political activists


  • United States, 00, US
  • Tuscumbia, AL, US
  • Easton, CT, US