Happy Birthday, Helen Keller

Helen Keller and Charlie Chaplin

On this date in 1880, Helen Keller was born. It is well known that she was blind and deaf, but not as well known that Helen had been a normal, healthy, active toddler until she was nineteen months old. It is now speculated that despite her rudimentary diagnosis of “acute congestion of the stomach and brain” that the child most likely had either contracted meningitis or scarlet fever. The illness robbed Helen not only of her sight and hearing, but also of her ability to acquire language.

Helen stayed in her isolated world of darkness and disorientation until she was six years old. Fortunately, her parents were well-to-do and her mother driven to find help. Kate Adams Keller, Helen’s mother, was not only educated but a tireless advocate (a fact that the famous film The Miracle Worker does not convey at all). Upon reading an essay about the education of another blind and deaf woman in Charles DickensAmerican Notes, Kate researched the best specialists on the Eastern seaboard.  She then sent her husband with Helen to Baltimore to visit Dr. Julian Chisholm, who put the Kellers in touch with Alexander Graham Bell. Bell recommended that the family seek help from the Perkins School for the Blind.

Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired and only twenty years old, was selected to be Helen’s teacher.  It was no easy task to pull the frightened and stubborn Helen out of the darkness. Sullivan spelled words into Helen’s palm until finally the child understood and her world opened wide.

For the next forty-nine years, Anne and Helen were inseparable. Helen became far more than competent. Her accomplishments are still awe-inspiring. They include:

  • Twelve published books, including her autobiography, written at age 22, The Story of My Life
  • Helped found the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union)
  • A suffragist and a pacifist; a steadfast socialist who campaigned against Woodrow Wilson
  • Met every president from Grover Cleavland to Lyndon Johnson
  • Counted Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, and Alexander Graham Bell among her closest friends
  • Made thirty-nine trips to Japan (along with Anne Sullivan)

An interesting bit of trivia: On one of her late trips to Japan, Helen was presented with an Akita dog as a gift.  The puppy died of distemper, but the Japanese soon sent another. Helen Keller is now credited with introducing the Akita breed to the United States.

Given what Helen Keller had to overcome, it should come as no surprise that she when she found her “voice,” she used it to the fullest. Anyone who thought they would meet a demure woman, simply happy to pass the time, had another thing coming. For example, a newspaper editor, whom Keller had know for some time, once called her socialist activity “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.”  Keller wasted no time in shooting him down, saying:

“(N)ow that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him…Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.”

In her childhood, Helen had struggled to learn how to communicate at all. As an adult, she realized that there was much more to one’s character than just the ability to speak. “Character,” she argued,  “cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

Happy birthday, Ms. Keller. May we all remember what constitutes character.