Helen Keller Biography

Helen Keller, an American lecturer, political activist, and author, is best known as the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree in arts. Her remarkable life and achievements have made her an enduring symbol of dynamism and inspiration for individuals with disabilities. Keller’s autobiography, ‘The Story of My Life,’ and her thought-provoking essay compilations, such as ‘Out of the Dark,’ have left a lasting impact. She wrote extensively on socialist and spiritual topics, leaving behind a rich literary legacy. Keller’s influence extends beyond her writings, as her life has been the subject of numerous films, television series, and documentaries. She dedicated herself to the ‘American Foundation for the Blind,’ raising funds and serving as a guiding light. Even after her passing, Keller’s legacy lives on through the many hospitals and foundations named in her honor. Her contributions were recognized with prestigious awards, including being featured on Alabama’s ‘The 50 State Quarters’ program and being listed among Gallup’s ‘Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century.’ A bronze statue of Keller now stands in the esteemed ‘National Statuary Hall Collection.’ Today, Keller’s story continues to inspire millions worldwide and remains a prominent subject in art and academia.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Helen Adams Keller
  • Died At Age: 87
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: John Macy
    • Father: Arthur H. Keller
    • Mother: Kate Adams Keller
  • Born Country: United States
  • Quotes By Helen Keller
  • Writers
  • Died on: June 1, 1968
  • Place of death: Easton, Connecticut, United States
  • Ancestry: Swiss American
  • Notable Alumni: Radcliffe College
  • U.S. State: Alabama
  • Ideology: Socialists
  • More Facts
  • Education: Radcliffe College
  • Awards: 1964 – Presidential Medal of Freedom

Helen Keller Childhood

Helen Keller was born Helen Adams Keller on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama, USA. Keller’s family lived in a home that was built and owned by Helen’s grandfather. Helen’s father Arthur H. Keller worked as an editor for the Tuscumbia ‘North Alabamian’ and had served as a captain in the ‘Confederate Army.’ Her mother Kate Adams, who was the daughter of Charles Adams, had fought for the ‘Confederate Army’ during the ‘American Civil War,’ earning the rank of brigadier-general.

Helen’s paternal ancestry was traced to a Swiss named Casper Keller. According to reports, one of Helen’s Swiss ancestors had served as the first teacher for the deaf in Zurich. Helen would later mention this coincidence in her first autobiography, stating “that there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.”

Helen’s Illness and Communication

Helen was not born deaf and blind. However, she was affected by an illness which led to her condition. Her doctors described her illness as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain” which is now believed to have been either scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness did not remain with her for long but brought about her deafness and blindness. As a child, Helen could only communicate with Martha Washington who was Helen’s family cook’s daughter. Martha understood much of Helen’s signs. Helen used sixty such home signs while communicating with her family. In 1886, Helen’s father accompanied her to seek the help of Dr. J. Julian Chisolm, an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist in Baltimore. This was the first time that Helen was sent for a professional learning process. The move was initiated by her mother who had been inspired by an account in Charles Dickens’ ‘American Notes,’ which spoke about the successful education of another deaf and blind woman, Laura Bridgman. Dr. J. Julian Chisolm referred Helen and her father to Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell introduced Helen and her family to ‘Perkins Institute for the Blind’ where Laura Bridgman had received her formal education. Helen had found her instructor in Perkins’ former student Anne Sullivan (who was visually impaired for twenty years). Anne was personally referred to by Perkins’ director, Michael Anagnos.

Education and Accomplishments

Anne Sullivan started teaching Helen after arriving at Helen’s home in March 1887. Anne initially taught Helen how to communicate through hand signs. Keller had a protruding left eye, due to which she was usually photographed in profile. Both of Keller’s eyes were replaced with glass replicas when she turned into an adult. From May 1888, Helen started attending ‘Perkins Institute for the Blind.’ In 1894, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan moved to New York to receive special education from ‘Wright-Humason School for the Deaf.’ They were also educated by Sarah Fuller at ‘Horace Mann School for the Deaf.’ In 1896, Keller and Sullivan returned to Massachusetts, and Helen enrolled at ‘The Cambridge School for Young Ladies.’ In 1900, Helen was admitted to ‘Radcliffe College,’ where she lived in Briggs Hall, South House. Mark Twain greatly admired Helen Keller for her efforts and helped her greatly in introducing her to ‘Standard Oil’ magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers, who along with his wife funded Helen’s education. In 1904, Keller graduated from ‘Radcliffe College’ at the age of twenty-four, and became the first deaf and blind person ever to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Later Years and Activism

Helen remained in close alliance with the Austrian philosopher and pedagogue Wilhelm Jerusalem who was the first person to assess and discover Helen’s immense literary talent. Anne Sullivan had remained Helen’s companion for several years. Anne married John Macy in 1905. Her health declined somewhere around 1914. Keller recruited Polly Thompson to keep her house. Thompson was a young Scottish woman who had no prior experience dealing with deaf or blind people, but she managed well and became a secretary to Helen. Polly always accompanied Helen and became a constant companion in her later years.

Helen Keller became a world-renowned writer and a magnificent orator. She is remembered even today for her tremendous efforts and contributions in advocating the cause of people with disabilities and many other social causes. Helen was outright in rejecting Woodrow Wilson’s policies. Helen played an integral role in promoting birth control and suffrage and was a pacifist all her life. Keller was a socialist and believed in radical changes. She opposed parliamentary socialism which according to her was “sinking in the political bog.” In 1912, Keller joined the ‘Industrial Workers of the World’ (known as the IWW or the Wobblies). In 1915, she founded the ‘Helen Keller International’ (HKI) organization along with George Kessler. The organization researched the areas of vision, health, and nutrition. In 1920, Helen greatly helped found the ‘American Civil Liberties Union’ (ACLU). Keller was accompanied by Sullivan on 40 foreign country trips. Helen and Sullivan visited Japan where Helen became a favorite among the Japanese people. During her travels and political visits, Keller met several American presidents from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson. She also became friends with many famous individuals like Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin, and Mark Twain.

Writing Career and Final Years

Helen Keller was interested in activism because of her concern for blindness and other disabilities. She regularly wrote for ‘IWW’ from 1916 to 1918. Besides writing various articles, Helen wrote twelve books which were all published. One of the earliest known Helen’s written pieces was ‘The Frost King’ (1891). There were allegations that Helen had copied the book from ‘The Frost Fairies’ by Margaret Canby. The supposed act of plagiarism was condemned and Helen’s work was thoroughly investigated. It was found that Keller may have experienced cryptomnesia and may have reproduced Canby’s story, read out to her when she was a child. Keller was twenty-two years old when her autobiography ‘The Story of My Life’ was published in 1903. In 1908, Keller wrote ‘The World I Live In’ which spoke about her feelings of the world she felt living inside. In 1913, ‘Out of the Dark,’ a series of essays on socialism, was published. In 1927, Keller’s spiritual autobiography ‘My Religion’ was published.

Helen Keller was affected by several strokes in 1961. She was confined to her home in the final years of her life. On September 14, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her with the prestigious ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom,’ which is regarded as one of the United States’ highest civilian honors. Keller died in her sleep on June 1, 1968, at her home ‘Arcan Ridge,’ located in Easton, Connecticut.

Film and Television Adaptations and Posthumous Awards

Keller’s life has inspired many television series, films, and documentaries. She herself appeared in a silent film titled ‘Deliverance’ in 1919, which narrated the story of her life in a melodramatic and allegorical style. ‘The Miracle Worker’ is a cycle of dramatic works, heavily derived from her autobiography ‘The Story of My Life.’ Each of the various dramas describes the relationship between Keller and Sullivan, depicting the teacher’s leading role in calming Keller from a state of almost feral wildness. The common title of the cycle echoes Mark Twain’s description of Sullivan as a “miracle worker.” Its first realization was the 1957 William Gibson’s teleplay ‘Playhouse 90.’ Gibson adapted it for a Broadway production in 1959 and produced an Oscar-winning feature film in 1962, which starred Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. It was remade for television in 1979 and 2000. In 1984, Helen Keller’s life story was adapted into a TV movie called ‘The Miracle Continues.’ A Bollywood movie titled ‘Black,’ which was released in 2005, and directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, was based on Keller’s life.

In 1999, Keller’s name was mentioned in Gallup’s list of ‘Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century.’ A hospital in Sheffield, Alabama was named after her. In 2003, Alabama honored Helen, who was considered Alabama’s native daughter, in its ‘state quarter.’ There are streets in Getafe, Spain, and Lod, Israel which have been named after Helen Keller. On October 7, 2009, a bronze statue of Helen Keller was added to the ‘National Statuary Hall Collection.’ The Time Magazine also named her among the ‘100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.’ In 1971, she was inaugurated into the ‘Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame.’ In 2015, she was inducted into the ‘Alabama Writers Hall of Fame.’

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