Laura Dewey Bridgman was born in Hanover, New Hampshire, on December 21, 1829, to hardworking New England farmers. At the age of 24 months, she was desperately ill with scarlet fever for many weeks. When the fever passed, Laura had lost her sight, hearing, sense of smell, and nearly all of her sense of taste.
Touch was the single sense left to her, and she tried to make sense of her world by exploring every object and surface she encountered. Because she loved to imitate what her mother did, Laura was quite helpful with household chores, even learning to sew and knit. She developed a rudimentary sign language, with gestures for food and other basic needs, and a name sign for each family member.
Communication between Laura and her family was very limited. Pushing and pulling told her that she was to go or to come. Approval was communicated by a gentle pat on the head, and disapproval by a pat on the back. As Laura grew older, she frequently had temper tantrums, and by the time she was seven she could be controlled only by being physically overpowered. Laura’s father was the only family member she would obey.
Perkins School for the Blind, the first in the United States, was founded in 1829 and opened its doors in 1832. Samuel Gridley Howe, the school’s first director, was delighted with his pupils’ progress, but after five years he was ready for new challenges. In that era, people who were deafblind were considered hopelessly unreachable. When Howe heard about Laura, he was eager to try educating her. He traveled to Hanover, New Hampshire, and easily convinced her busy family that Laura’s best chance lay in going to Perkins School for the Blind. She arrived at the school in October of 1837, eleven weeks before her eighth birthday.
No one had succeeded in teaching language to someone who was deafblind, and Howe was now faced with creating a method of education. Instead of expanding upon Laura’s natural sign language, he decided to teach her English. He gave her familiar objects, such as forks and keys, with name labels made of raised letters pasted upon them. When he gave her detached labels with the same words, she matched them with their objects. However, Howe could tell that “the only intellectual exercise was that of imitation and memory.”
Howe next cut up the labels so each letter was separate. He spelled the now-familiar words, showed them to Laura, then jumbled the letters. Laura was able to rearrange them so they once again spelled the words. According to Howe, it was at this point that Laura grasped the concept of language and communication.
From the moment she understood that objects have names, Laura eagerly demanded to be taught the name of everything she encountered. She learned the manual alphabet swiftly, which allowed her to communicate unencumbered by cut-out letters. During the next year of her education, her teachers focused on expanding her communication skills and vocabulary.
After Laura mastered language, her curriculum was much like that of the other pupils at Perkins. With a teacher constantly at her side to fingerspell to her, she attended classes and studied reading, writing, geography, arithmetic, history, grammar, algebra, geometry, physiology, philosophy, and history.
Samuel Gridley Howe published the account of Laura Bridgman’s education in the Perkins Annual Reports, making both teacher and student internationally famous. In 1842, British writer Charles Dickens visited Perkins and wrote of his encounter with Laura in his book, American Notes. Dickens described the twelve-year-old girl in sentimental terms, dwelling upon her innocence and childish beauty, and likened her to a prisoner liberated from a vault of isolation. This effusive praise increased her celebrity and popularity throughout the world.
Laura’s instruction at Perkins ended in 1850, when she was 20. After years of being with a constant teacher-companion, Laura was suddenly on her own day and night, with few people to talk to. It seemed best that Laura return to New Hampshire, where she would benefit from the intimacy and interaction of domestic life. In fact, her busy farming family had little time or patience for her. Her health began to deteriorate, and Howe realized that Laura should return to Perkins. He and Dorothea Dix, Laura’s friend and advocate, raised an endowment to ensure that she would have a permanent home at the school. Although she often spent summers with her family in New Hampshire, Laura lived at Perkins School for the Blind, her “Sunny Home,” for the rest of her life.
Laura’s adult life at Perkins was busy. She lived in one of the four cottages with the students, and did her share of the housework. As a teacher of needlework, she intimidated generations of students with her notorious intolerance of shoddy workmanship. Laura read a great deal in her free time, principally from the Bible. She sold her needlework pieces, delighting in having money to give gifts to her friends and contributions to the poor. She was an enthusiastic letter writer throughout her life, and sometimes traveled to visit friends and relations. For a Victorian woman of this time, Laura lived a comfortable life.
When she was 59, Laura Bridgman became ill. After several weeks, she died peacefully at Perkins on May 24, 1889.
Laura Bridgman’s life and education is a legacy that continues into the 21st century. In writing of her, Charles Dickens made the world understand that people who are deafblind can be educated. In 1886, Helen Keller’s parents read Dickens’s account and realized for the first time that there was hope for their daughter. They contacted Perkins School for the Blind, and Director Michael Anagnos sent Perkins graduate Anne Sullivan to be Helen’s teacher. Sullivan educated Helen using Samuel Gridley Howe’s methods for teaching Laura Bridgman.
Helen Keller was a groundbreaking advocate for the rights of people with disabilities and one of the foremost humanitarians of the twentieth century. Many of today’s advances in education, accessibility, and civil rights are the direct result of her tireless activism. Pioneer though she was, Helen Keller always acknowledged gratefully that she followed in the footsteps of the little New Hampshire farm girl, Laura Bridgman.
Suggested citation for scholars:
McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Laura Bridgman. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.