Helen Adams Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. She overcame the adversity of being blind and deaf to become one of the 20th century's leading humanitarians.
Helen Keller was the first of two daughters born to Arthur H. Keller and Katherine Adams Keller. She also had two older stepbrothers. Her father had proudly served as an officer inthe Confederate Army during the Civil War. The family was not particularly wealthy and earned income from their cotton plantation. Later, Arthur became the editor of a weekly local newspaper, the North Alabamian. Helen was born with her senses of sight and hearing. She started speaking when she was six months old, and could communicate and walk at the age of one.
In 1882, however, Helencontracted an illness—the family doctor called it "brain fever"—that produced a high body temperature. The true nature of the illness remains a mystery today, though some experts believe it might have been scarlet fever or meningitis. Within a few days after the fever broke, Helen's mother noticed that her daughter didn't show any reaction when the dinner bell was rung, or when a hand was waved in frontof her face. Helen Keller had lost both her sight and the ability to hear. She was only 18 months old.
As Helen grew into childhood, she developed a limited method of communication with her companion, Martha Washington, the young daughter of the family cook. The two had created a sign language, and by the time Helen was 7, they had invented more than 60 signs to communicate with each other. ButHelen had become very wild and unruly during this time. She would kick and scream when angry and giggle uncontrollably when happy. She tormented Martha and inflicted raging tantrums on her parents. Many family relatives felt she should be institutionalized.
Looking for answers and inspiration, Helen's mother came across a travelogue by Charles Dickens titled "American Notes" in 1886. There sheread of the successful education of another deaf and blind child, Laura Bridgman. She dispatched Helen and her father to Baltimore, Maryland, to see specialist Dr. J. Julian Chisolm. After examining Helen, he recommended she see Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell met with Helen and her parents and suggested the PerkinsInstitute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts. There they met with the school's director, Michael Anaganos. He suggested Helen work with one of the institute's most recent graduates, Anne Sullivan. Thus began a 49-year-long relationship between teacher and pupil.
In March 1887, Anne Sullivan went to Helen Keller's home in Alabama and immediately went to work. She began by teaching Helen fingerspelling, starting with the word "doll" to help Helen understand the gift of a doll she had brought. Other words would follow. At first, Helen was curious, then defiant. She refused to cooperate with Sullivan's instruction. When Helen did cooperate, Anne could tell that she wasn't making the connection between the objects and the letters spelled out in her hand. Sullivan kept working at it, forcingHelen to go through the regimen. As Helen's frustration grew, the tantrums increased. Finally, Sullivan demanded that she and Helen be isolated from the rest of the family for a time so that Helen could concentrate only on Sullivan's instruction. They moved to a cottage on the plantation.
In a dramatic struggle, Sullivan taught Helen the word "water" and, in doing so, helped her make theconnection between the object and the letters. Sullivan had taken Helen out to the water pump and placed Helen's hand under the spout. While Sullivan moved the lever to flush cool water over Helen's hand, she spelled out the word w-a-t-e-r on Helen's other hand. Helen understood and repeated the word in Sullivan's hand. Then she pounded the ground, demanding to know its "letter name." Sullivan followed...