Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27th, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama. When she was 19 months old, she contracted an illness described by doctors as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain”, possibly 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 6 year old daughter of the family cook, who understood her signs. By the age of seven, Keller had more than sixty home signs to communicate with her family. She learned how to tell which person was walking by from the vibrations their footsteps would make.
In 1886, Helen’s mother, inspired by an account in Charles Dickens' American Notes, regarding the education of another deaf and blind woman - Laura Bridgman, sent Helen with her father to a physician J. Julian Chisolm, an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist in Baltimore. 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, where Laura Bridgman had been educated. Michael Anagnos, the school's director, asked a former student Anne Sullivan who was a 20-year-old and 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 the Keller's house in March 1887, and immediately began to teach Helen to communicate by spelling words into her hand. Helen was frustrated at first because she did not understand that every object had a word uniquely identifying it. Helen's big breakthrough in communication came the next month, when she realised that the motions her teacher was making on the palm of her hand, while running cool water over her other hand, symbolised the idea of ‘water’; she then nearly exhausted Sullivan demanding the names of all the other familiar objects in her world.
In May 1888, Helen attended the Perkins Institute for the Blind. Then in 1894, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan moved to New York to attend the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf. In 1896, they returned to Massachusetts, and Helen entered The Cambridge School for Young Ladies and in 1900 she went on to Radcliffe College. 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, Helen graduated from Radcliffe, becoming the first deaf blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Determined to communicate with others as conventionally as possible, she 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 also became proficient at using braille and reading sign language with her hands as well.
Anne Sullivan stayed as a companion to Helen Keller long after she had finished teaching her. Anne married John Macy in 1905, and Polly Thomson was hired to keep house, she progressed to working as a secretary and eventually became a constant companion to Helen.
Anne Sullivan died in 1936 after a coma, with Helen holding her hand. Helen and Polly Thompson moved to Connecticut, they travelled worldwide and raised funds for the blind. Polly had a stroke in 1957 from which she never fully recovered, and died in 1960. Winnie Corbally, a nurse whom they originally hired to care for Polly in 1957, stayed on after her death and was Helen's companion for the rest of her life.
In 1961 Helen suffered a series of strokes and spent the last years of her life at her home. On September 14th, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the United States' two highest civilian honours. In 1965 she was elected to the National Woman's Hall of Fame at the New York World's Fair.
She died in her sleep on June 1st, 1968, at her home, Arcan Ridge, a few weeks short of her eighty-eighth birthday. A service was held in her honour at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., her body was cremated and her ashes were placed there next to her constant companions, Anne Sullivan and Polly Thomson. She was buried at the Washington National Cathedral.
Her birthplace in West Tuscumbia, Alabama, is now a museum and sponsors an annual ‘Helen Keller Day’. Her birthday on June 27th is commemorated as Helen Keller Day in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania.
A prolific author, Helen Keller was well-travelled and outspoken in her convictions. A member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, she campaigned for woman's suffrage, labour rights, socialism, antimilitarism, and other similar causes.
Helen proved to the world that deaf people could all learn to communicate and that they could survive in the hearing world. She also taught that deaf people are also capable of doing things that hearing people can do. She is one of the most famous deaf people in history and she is an idol to many deaf people in the world.