10 things you probably don’t know about Anne Sullivan

These are 10 quick facts you probably don't know about Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller's longtime teacher and friend.

Anne Sullivan is best known for her role as Helen Keller’s teacher and friend. However, she led a fascinating life, full of heartbreaking lows (being sent to an overcrowded home for the destitute as a child) and remarkable highs (making friends with Mark Twain and Charlie Chaplin). Sullivan (right) is shown in this 1896 photo with a 16-year-old Keller.

Anne Sullivan is one of Perkins School for the Blind’s best-known students. After graduating from Perkins in 1886, she traveled to Alabama to educate Helen Keller, and remained Keller’s instructor, interpreter and friend until her death in 1936.

10 things you may not know about Sullivan

  1. Sullivan had a childhood of Dickensian squalor. Her parents were impoverished immigrants who fled the Great Famine in Ireland. She became almost blind from a bacterial eye disease when she was 5. Her mother died when she was 8, and her father abandoned Sullivan and her brother. They were sent to the Tewksbury Almshouse – an overcrowded home for the destitute – where her brother died a few months later. The experience roused in her, she wrote later, “not only compassion but a fierce indignation” for the plight of poor and marginalized people.
  2. She got an education because of her spunk. In 1880, Massachusetts launched an investigation into the Tewksbury Almshouse after reports of abuse, cruelty, and even cannibalism. When the State Board of Charities sent official Frank B. Sanborn to inspect the school, Sullivan jumped in front of him, saying, “Mr. Sanborn, I want to go to school!” She was sent to Perkins School for the Blind.
  3. Sullivan didn’t fit in at Perkins. Other students looked down on her rough, lower-class ways. Her fierce determination helped her succeed academically, but her quick temper and willingness to break rules almost got her expelled several times. But she persevered, and graduated as class valedictorian.
  4. She remained embarrassed about her poor and unsophisticated upbringing throughout her life. Her cousin Anastatia said about her, “A colt or a heifer in the pasture has better manners.” As a result, Sullivan later said, “I was extremely conscious of my crudeness, and because I felt this inferiority, I carried a chip on my shoulder.”
  5. Sullivan learned finger-spelling from Laura Bridgman. A graduate of Perkins, Bridgman was the first person with deafblindness to get a formal education. The two spent time together when Sullivan was a student at Perkins. Bridgman taught her how to form letters with her fingers to spell out words into the palm of a hand. Sullivan used that finger-spelling method to teach Helen Keller how to communicate.
  6. Mark Twain was the first person to call Sullivan a ‘miracle-worker.’ The famous author was annoyed that people wanted to meet Keller but ignored her extraordinary teacher. To give Sullivan proper credit, he described her as a “miracle-worker.” That inspired the name of the iconic movie about Sullivan and Keller, “The Miracle Worker.”
  7. Sullivan married John Macy in May 1905 but not until after she had turned down his proposals multiple times. She was concerned that Macy couldn’t handle her fiery temper, and their difference in religion (he was Protestant, and she was Catholic). The two separated in 1914, but she retained her married name, Anne Sullivan Macy.
  8. She was friends with Charlie Chaplin. When Sullivan and Keller moved to Hollywood in 1918 to make “Deliverance,” a movie about Keller’s life, Sullivan met Chaplin, one of the world’s most popular actors. They hit it off immediately, perhaps because they shared some unexpected similarities. Keller later wrote: “They had both struggled for education and social equality… Both were shy and unspoiled by their victories over fate.”
  9. Sullivan has been portrayed by more than 20 actresses in movies and TV shows. The most memorable performances include Anne Bancroft in “The Miracle Worker” (1962), Blythe Danner in “Helen Keller: The Miracle Continues,” a 1984 made-for-TV movie about Keller’s years at Radcliffe College, and Olivia d’Abo in a 1998 episode of the animated PBS kids show, “Adventures from the Book of Virtues.”
  10. There’s an interesting connection between Sullivan and baseball legend Nolan Ryan – they were both inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame in 2016.

Want to learn more?

For more information about Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller, visit the Perkins archives.