The Inspiring Life Of Helen Keller
Born in Alabama in 1880, Helen Keller faced adversity from an extremely young age after losing her sight and hearing. However, her devotion to learning, guidance from others, and commitment to activism helped her become one of the most influential individuals of the 20th century.
Her entire life is a testament to the strength of the human spirit, as she was able to accomplish much more than most people, without the use of sight and hearing. Take an in-depth look into the incredible life of Helen Keller and what she managed to achieve without the senses many of us take for granted.
She Wasn't Born Disabled
Born in 1880, Helen Keller wasn't born blind and deaf. However, she fell ill at just 19 months old with what the doctors called "acute congestion of the stomach and the brain." Today, she most likely would have been diagnosed with Scarlet Fever or Meningitis. While both could have been treated with modern medicine, back then, the consequences were usually severe.
After Keller's fever eventually broke, her mother began to notice that she was no longer responding to sounds. After waving a hand in front of her face, she came to the shocking realization that Keller had lost both her eyesight and hearing.
Her Father Was A Captain In The Confederate Army
Keller was born in deep in the south in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Years before Keller was born, her father, Arthur Keller, worked as a lawyer in Alabama before finally enlisting in the Confederate Army. During his service in the Civil War, he started as a private and worked his way up to be a quartermaster-sergeant, paymaster, and eventually a captain.
After the war had ended, he bought and became the editor of The North Alabamian. It would later be reflected that Keller's father's time in the Confederate Army would have little to no effect on Keller's personal ideologies.
She Was Described As An Unruly Child
Considering her condition, as a young girl, Keller's behavior was often erratic and extreme. When angry, she would kick and scream in fits of rage, and if happy, would have uncontrollable laughing attacks. Many of her relatives believed that she should be placed in an institution.
As it turns out, this was due to her high intelligence paired with her inability to express herself, which became increasingly frustrating for her. She was so desperate to communicate that she had created her own form of sign language with her friend, Martha Washington. By the time she was seven, the two had invented more than 60 different signs.
She Claims Her Life Began When She Was Seven Years Old
Once Keller became involved with Anne Sullivan, her mentor, and teacher, she believed her life truly began. Anne came into Keller's life in 1887 when she was seven years old, and Anne was 21. Anne was also visually impaired and had just graduated from school. Anne then began teaching Keller how to fingerspell, so she would be able to communicate with other people.
At first, it was challenging for Keller, but things finally fell into place after Anne put Keller's hand under the water pump and spelled out "water" on her hand. Supposedly, by the end of the night, she had learned 30 different words.
Alexander Graham Bell Was A Part Of Her Life
When Keller was just six years old, her parents took her to see Julian John Chisolm, Professor of Diseases of the Eye and Ear at the University of Maryland. He recommended that they take her to see Alexander Graham Bell, a famous inventor credited with creating the first telephone.
Bell's wife was deaf and he had established several schools for the deaf as a result and taught deaf students as well. Bell suggested that her parents enroll her at the Perkins Institution for the Blind. It was there Keller first met Sullivan, and along with Bell, they remained friends until his death in 1922.
She Was Good Friends With Mark Twain
Keller met Mark Twain in 1895 as a teenager while attending Cambridge School for Young Ladies. The two met for lunch in New York with her recalling that he "treated me not as a freak, but as a handicapped woman seeking a way to circumvent extraordinary difficulties." The two bonded over similar political views and ideologies, as well as the fact that Twain had a daughter the same age as Keller.
She recognized Twain from the smell of the tobacco that he smoked regularly. Twain helped convince industrialist Henry Huttleston Rogers to pay for her education and was openly amazed by the work Anne Sullivan had managed to accomplish.
She Was The First Blind And Deaf Person To Graduate College
In 1900, Keller was accepted into the renown Radcliff College in Cambridge. Anne was accepted as well so she could attend her classes and help her along the way. Before entering school, she had learned to read peoples' lips using her fingers, as well as braille, typing, and finger spelling. Keller had also learned to speak although not as well as she would have liked.
By her junior year, she had written her autobiography, The Story of My Life. By 1904, not only had she written a book, but she also graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, making her the first blind and deaf student to ever attain a college degree.
She Was A Member Of the Socialist Party
Even though her father had been a captain in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Keller's own beliefs were almost completely opposite. She became increasingly involved in politics and was a member of the Socialist Party, helping to found the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU.
She had ultra far-left views and at one point, she was even under investigation by the FBI. Keller is known for her work regarding women's suffrage, worker's rights, and birth control. She also wrote essays about her admiration of Vladimir Lenin and his Socialistic ideals.
She Fell In Love With Her Secretary
In 1916, when Keller was 36 years old, she fell in love with Peter Fagan, a former newspaper reporter. Seven years her junior, Fagan was working as her temporary secretary during a period when Sullivan was sick. Fagan returned the feelings to Keller, and the two secretly became engaged and even took out a marriage license.
However, upon discovering their secret engagement, Keller's family forbade the marriage on account of her disabilities. Throughout her life, not marrying was one of her biggest regrets. She claimed, "If I could see, I would marry first of all."
She Was The First Person To Bring The Akita Breed To The US
In the 1930s, Keller was touring around Japan visiting schools and making public appearances. She was a known animal lover, and a Japanese police officer gave her an Akita named Kamikaze-Go as a present. She immediately bonded with the dog, who unfortunately passed away not long before she returned to the United States.
Hearing that her dog died, the Japanese government gifted her another dog from the same litter and shipped it to the United States. This made Keller the first person to bring the dog breed into the U.S. After World War II, she returned to Japan once again to visit the disabled in military hospitals.
She Was Named The Eighth Wonder of The World
While Keller and Sullivan had become widely known to the public, they weren't making a comfortable living based on their earnings from Keller's lectures and writings. So, during the 1920s, the duo spent four years on the vaudeville circuit. During that time, Keller would discuss her life and host Q&A sessions where audiences could ask questions and Sullivan would translate.
As the two traveled from town to town, Keller earned the reputation of being "the brightest star of happiness and optimism" and “the eighth wonder of the world.” People couldn't fathom the hardships she had managed to overcome.
She's An Oscar Winner
In 1919, Keller starred in Deliverance, a film about herself. During that time, she became friendly with many Hollywood A-listers such as Charlie Chapman and other prominent individuals in the media industry. In 1955, at the age of 75, Keller accepted an Academy Award for the documentary about her life titled Helen Keller: In Her Story.
Of course, depictions of her life didn't stop there. The William Gibson play The Miracle Worker won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 and was turned into a film two years later. Anne Bancroft won Best Actress for her performance as Sullivan, and Patty Duke won Best Supporting Actress for playing Keller.
Her Likeness Is On A US Quarter
In 2003, as part of the 50 state quarters program, Keller's image was printed on the Alabama State quarter. On the quarter, Keller is depicted sitting in a rocking chair while reading a book in braille.
The coin was introduced in March 2003, with her name printed on the quarter in typical lettering as well as braille. Beneath the image of her is the phrase "Spirit of Courage." These coins were produced for just ten weeks and are now considered a collector's item.
Many Of Her Archives Were Destroyed
Although there is still a substantial amount of footage of Keller, as well as her works, there used to be much more. Unfortunately, much of her archival footage and other material was stored at the World Trade Center.
During the attack on September 11, almost all of it was lost in the destruction of the towers. Furthermore, the offices of Helen Keller Worldwide were located just a block away from the World Trade Centers, and they too were also destroyed in the wake of the attacks.
She Travelled Extensively
In 1946, Keller was appointed counselor of international relations for the American Foundation of Overseas Blind. In total, she went to 39 different countries throughout her life. During her travels, she made it a point to advocate for educational policies for the disabled to the many world leaders that she encountered. She also particularly fell in love with the Middle East.
She wrote "It was more wonderful than I had dreamed for us to travel through semi-legendary lands… I could still feel something of the old picturesqueness, the poetry, the oriental atmosphere and the spirit of prophecy, and I was fascinated by the power of the Muslim religion."
She Was Religious
Despite all of the hardships she had endured throughout her life, she did not shy away from God. She found faith in Christianity after meeting Phillips Brooks, the former Bishop of Massachusetts. Being the open-minded and considerate woman that she was, just because she was Christian didn't mean she dismissed other religions.
She expressed this when she wrote, "He has provided religion of some kind everywhere, and it does not matter to what race or creed anyone belongs if he is faithful to his ideals of right living."
Incredibly, She Supported Eugenics
Although Keller spent much of her life advocating for human rights, birth control and establishing many programs for the disabled, surprisingly, she supported eugenics. Even though she would not have lived if eugenics were in practice, for fear of overpopulation, she believed infants with severe mental or physical disabilities should be allowed to die.
She felt that their lives would not be worth living and they would only be a burden on society. She once wrote, "Our puny sentimentalism has caused us to forget that human life is sacred only when it may be of some use to itself and to the world."
Keller And Sullivan Were Inseparable
From the time that Keller met Sullivan when she was just seven years old, the two became inseparable for the rest of their lives. Most likely, Keller would have been institutionalized without the help of Sullivan, who was there for her every step of the way. They spent their lives together from attending college, traveling the world, and leaving lasting impressions on people around the world.
When Sullivan passed away in 1936, Keller was next to her, holding her hand. Keller notes that the moment she met Sullivan was when her "soul was born." The two women are buried side-by-side at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
She Was Nominated For The Nobel Peace Prize
In 1952, Keller visited the Middle East where she met with political leaders about the rights of the blind and the disabled. In Egypt, she managed to convince the Minister of Education to establish secondary schools for the blind that would aid in them receiving college educations.
In Israel, Jerusalem's Helen Keller School was named in her honor. For her work, in 1953, Keller was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. However, the award went to George Catlett Marshall for his post-war work after World War II.
She Has An Impressive List Of Awards And Accolades
For a lifetime of hard work and activism, Keller was recognized on numerous occasions. In 1936 she received the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Sevice Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, and election to the Women's Hall of Fame in 1965.
Moreover, Keller received honorary doctoral degrees from several universities both at home and abroad including Harvard University. She continued to be honored after her death in 1968, appearing on Time's 1999 list of the 100 most important figures of the 20th century, among other recognitions.