Helen Adams Keller was the eldest daughter of Arthur H Keller and his second wife Kate Adams. Arthur was a confederate soldier during the American Civil War, and later an editor of the North Alabamian in their hometown of Tuscumbia, Alabama, where they lived on a former cotton plantation which had been in the Keller family for some time. His mother was a second cousin of US Confederate General Robert E Lee. Keller believed that black people were sub-human although it is stated in various sources that he wasn’t an unkind man. The family employed black servants, one of whom, the cook had a daughter Martha, who would become Helen’s main playmate.
Kate’s father, Charles W Adams, despite being raised in Boston joined the Arkansas branch of the Northern Confederate army during the American Civil War, and rose to the rank of Brigadier General. Adams’ father Benjamin was related to US President John Adams. Charles Adams was a slave owner both before and after the war, on his cotton plantation in Arkansas, and the family were reported to be fairly wealthy.
Arthur’s first marriage had produced 2 sons who were quite grown by the time their mother Sarah died, in 1877, but nonetheless were extremely unhappy when their father remarried only a year later to Kate, who being 20 years younger than her new husband, was only nine years older than her older stepson. Helen recalls as a small child, she had a fairly happy relationship with her younger step-brother William, but was very nervous of the older James. Arthur and Kate had two further children, Mildred born when Helen was five years old, and Philip, but by this time their marriage was in all but name, Kate being rather resentful of the struggle to manage financially, which meant she was forced to grow her own vegetables and raise pigs for bacon and ham.
In 1882, at around 19 months of age, Helen who until then had shown signs of being quite an intelligent child, already able to walk and learning to talk, was struck down with a mysterious brain fever, described by modern physicians as quite likely either Scarlet Fever or a Meningitis-type illness. After several days of being close to death with a high temperature, Helen pulled through and started to recover. However, as she remembers, her eyes hurt and felt dry, becoming dimmer each day until after a week or so, it became apparent that she was completely blind, being unable to even distinguish light. Further tests revealed she was also profoundly deaf.
It’s interesting to note at this point that many children were afflicted with a fever based illness at around this time, and due to repeated outbreaks of scarlet fever most cases of brain fever were thought to be scarlet fever. A well-documented similar case to Helen’s happened just a couple of years before involving Mary Ingalls, older sister of author Laura Ingalls Wilder, of the Little House on the Prairie series. Mary’s illness at aged 14, also attributed to scarlet fever by some sources was recorded as a spinal inflammation and fever, now believed to be viral meningoencephalitis, which is similar to meningitis in presentation. Mary also went blind.
Despite legends of Helen becoming a tragic child, locked in a world of darkness and silence, her deafness causing mutism too, and being unable to communicate, the truth is a little more mundane. Helen and her family forged their own brand of sign-language, using a series of representative mime actions for around 60 key words. Despite this, Helen became increasingly dependent on her mother, and ever more frustrated at the lack of communications she experienced. As a result she became wilfull and rebellious, throwing several tantrums a day in her frustration, often burning herself and breaking crockery, on one occasion she cut off her playmate Martha Washington’s afro curls.
After reading Mark Twain’s American Notes, where he makes mention of Laura Bridgman, a young deaf and blind woman who received a successful education despite her disabilities, Kate Keller sent her husband and daughter to see leading Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat specialist, J. Julian Chisholm who after examining Helen, recommended the family to Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, who was a teacher for the Deaf. Bell forwarded the family to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, who had worked with Laura Bridgman. Perkins’ Director, Michael Anagnos recommended one of his recent graduates, Anne Sullivan, who was also visually impaired, to work with Helen on a one-to one basis.
Anne agreed to see if she would be able to help Helen learn to communicate, which was hoped would open up her world a little more and lessen her frustration. Anne was to become Helen’s lifelong companion and mentor, until her death in 1936, at which time Helen was at her side. It is known that the pair were inseparable, Helen went to live with Anne and her husband after her marriage, and was cited as one of the reasons her marriage ultimately failed as Anne consistently put Helen’s needs before those of her own and her husband.
In the first month, Anne met with failure when trying to teach Helen to “finger spell” her sign language onto another’s hand. She learned the words but had no associative context with which to place the words. Until the day when they were by the water pump in the garden and Anne pumped water onto Helen’s hand while spelling the word on the other. As the penny dropped, Helen realised there was a link between the shapes Anne was making on her hand, and the objects or actions she was describing. In the next few hours, Helen learned 30 new words.
Over the following years, Helen the young child that Kate had feared being lost, and her friends had said to institutionlise, grew into an intelligent young lady, learning to read lips by touching them as people spoke, and learning to read firstly through raised letters, then later Braille, which she also learned to write. After attending Perkins, in 1894, Helen and Anne moved to New York where Helen attended both the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf, and lessons with Sarah Fuller teacher at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf, who had studied methods of teaching Deaf-Mute children to talk, pioneered By Bell. Her attempts at learning to talk were met with minimal success, although those who spent time with her were able to understand the flat half formed monotone, Helen would often need an interpreter to translate for her during her later career and lectures.
IN 1896, Helen and Anne returned to Massachusetts, where Helen attended the Cambridge School for young ladies. Mark Twain introduced her to Standard Oil magnate, Henry Huttleston Roberts, and his wife Abbie, who were so impressed with Helen’s progress and desire to learn that they paid for her further education. As a result she entered the Radcliffe College in 1900 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree four years later, becoming the first deaf-blind person to do so.
The following year, Anne married John Macy, a lecturer at Harvard, and the three moved to Forest Hills, Queens where Helen became involved with the American Foundation for the Blind. At aged 30, she bowed to advice from her family and companions and had surgery to remove bother her eyeballs, as her left eye had a pronounced bulge, leading to Helen’s preference in her young adulthood to have her picture taken in profile to hide the problem. She was given a pair of glass eyes in a beautiful shade of blue following the surgery which she used for many years.
Following Anne’s decline in Health from 1914, a young woman from Scotland, Polly Thompson, was hired as a housekeeper and carer. Despite having no experience of working with deaf or blind people, her role evolved into that of secretary. Following Anne’s death, Polly became Helen’s new companion. After a stroke in 1957, from which she never recovered, a nurse was hired to take care of Polly until her subsequent death in 1960. The following year Helen suffered her own stroke, the first in a series, which left her housebound. Polly’s nurse Winnie Corbally took over the role as companion until Helen died on June 1st 1968. Following her death, Helen was cremated and her ashes interred next to those of her two companions, Anne Sullivan and Polly Thompson at Washington National Cathedral. Helen was inspired to God after hearing the sermons of Phillips Brooks, a Boston clergyman descended from the Rev John Cotton, who was introduced to her by Anne Sullivan as a young girl. At the age of 11, her youngest brother was born. Helen asked her parents to name him after the Rev Brooks, which they did. Two years later, aged 57, the Rev Brooks died.
As well as Helen’s work as an author and advocate for Blind and Deaf Americans, including substantial input in the matter of nutrition and health for the blind, Helen was a campaigner for welfare reforms for the blind, women’s suffrage and contraception. Helen Keller is credited with introducing the Japanese Akita breed to America, following a visit to Japan, where she was gifted first one dog, then following his death from Canine Distemper, his brother. She was also a passionate Socialist, and part of the move for increased labour rights. In 1933, Many of Helen’s work was destroyed by the Nazis for its Socialist views ironically because it contradicted their own. The Brooklyn Eagle once quoted Helen’s Socialist views as “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.”
Despite a large collection of media containing live footage of Helen in various stages and contexts of her life being captured over the years, a great deal of this footage was apparently stored at the World trade Centre, and was irretrievably lost when Islamic terrorists attacked and destroyed the Twin Towers in September 2001.