There have been many figures in Perkins’ history that have touched the school in one way or another – from Amelia Earhart to Alexander Graham Bell. Discover how each of these important people made their mark on Perkins School for the Blind by clicking their name in the list below.
In addition, please visit our online exhibit of Perkins staff members, including teachers, house parents, directors, psychologists, librarians and members of the board of trustees. Additionally there are a few images of non-Perkins staff who work in the blindness field.
David Abraham (1896–1978), an English immigrant with a manufacturing background, joined the Perkins Industrial Arts Department in the mid-1930s. Abraham’s manual skills and experience in manufacturing and design brought him to the notice of Director Farrell. Abraham agreed to create a prototype of a braille writer that incorporated a list of desirable features. The prototype was a success and is still manufactured as the Perkins Brailler with only minimal changes to its original design. David Abraham went on to become Chief Engineer at Howe Press.
The author Louisa May Alcott was born in 1832 in Germantown, Pennsylvania, but grew up in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts. Although she was taught mainly by her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, she also received instruction and guidance from family friends Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker. She wrote her first book at the age of 16, but it was the publication of Little Women in 1868 that brought her great fame. Like her parents, Alcott was a great supporter of social causes, including abolition, temperance and women’s suffrage. Eager to help establish the Kindergarten for the Blind, she wrote a story, “Blind Lark,” sold it to the children’s magazine St. Nicholas, and donated the $225 fee to the building fund.
Edward Ellis Allen was born in West Newton, Massachusetts on August 1, 1861. He graduated from Harvard in 1884 and spent the following year at Harvard Medical School. In 1885, he found that he was more interested in teaching than medicine” after spending a year teaching at Norwood, a school for the blind in London. From 1885 until 1888, Allen taught at the Royal Normal College for the Blind in London. Allen first came to Perkins in 1888 as a teacher and headmaster. Two years later, he moved on to become principal and director of the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia. While there, he designed the layout of the school and oversaw its entire construction.
Allen returned to Perkins School for the Blind in 1907 to serve as Director of the school. While Director, he oversaw the design and construction of a new campus in Watertown, Massachusetts. Using his experience at Overbrook, he designed the school to better accommodate people with visual impairments. Allen was also an early champion of the braille writing system for the blind, beginning in the late 1800’s. Despite the existence of several different formats of writing for the blind, Allen recognized braille’s superiority and helped to make it the standard for the blind. In 1898, he introduced the first interpoint and interlinear braille embossing equipment in the United States.Allen served as Director of Perkins until his retirement in 1931. Allen was a champion of student-focused teaching methods and invested in playground equipment, swimming pools, speech therapists, psychologists, and social workers to better suit the needs of his students.
Allen and his wife, Katherine, had two children and five grandchildren. He died in 1950.
Michael Anagnos (formerly Anagnostopoulos) was born November 7, 1837 in Papingo, Greece. Anagnos was a trustee and later the second director of Perkins School for the Blind (then the Perkins Institution) from 1876 until his death in 1906. Anagnos was a friend, assistant and son-in-law to Perkins’ founding director Samuel Gridley Howe. In 1886, Anagnos was contacted by Helen Keller’s parents and recommended Anne Sullivan as her teacher. He served as a mentor and friend to Sullivan, and wrote frequently about Helen Keller’s progress in the Annual Reports. Anagnos was a successful fundraiser and helped establish the first Kindergarten for the Blind in Jamaica Plain, MA in 1887.
A brilliant inventor and educator, Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847. His father was an inventor and teacher of an elocution system called Visible Speech, in which symbols indicated the position of the vocal organs in speech. Bell was an instructor in his father’s school in London and later in Canada, where the family emigrated in 1870. In the early 1870s Bell began teaching Visible Speech to students who were deaf, the beginning of a lifelong interest.
In 1886 the Kellers brought their six-year-old daughter Helen to Alexander Graham Bell, who referred them to Michael Anagnos, director of Perkins School for the Blind. The Kellers asked Anagnos to send a teacher to their Alabama home to instruct their deafblind daughter, and Anne Sullivan arrived in March of 1887.
Helen Keller later wrote of that momentous meeting with Alexander Graham Bell, “He understood my signs, and I knew and loved him at once. But I did not dream that that interview would be the door through which I should pass from darkness into light, from isolation to friendship, companionship, knowledge, love.” Bell remained a staunch friend of Helen Keller throughout his life.
Gazella Bennett came to the Perkins Institution as a teacher in the Girls’ Department in September, 1875. Within a short period of time she was made principal of the department and retained this position until 1911, when she resigned due to ill health. During her time as principal, Perkins took on pioneering work in Kindergarten, physical education (including the Swedish system of gymnastics) and domestic science. As principal, Bennett was constantly working for the betterment of the school in every department so that girls would leave more fully equipped for success. It was with her help that the Perkins Institution’s Alumnae Association was formed.
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 fell ill with scarlet fever for many weeks and lost her sight, hearing, sense of smell and nearly all of her sense of taste. Five years after the Perkins School for the Blind opened its doors, Director Samuel Gridley Howe heard about Laura, and was eager to try educating her.
In that era, people who were deafblind were considered hopelessly unreachable. Laura became the first deafblind person to be formally educated. Howe published the account of Laura Bridgman’s education in the Perkins Annual Reports, making both teacher and student internationally famous.
Laura’s instruction at Perkins ended in 1850, when she was 20, and she returned to New Hampshire to be with her family. They were unable to give Laura much attention, so she returned to Perkins where she spent the rest of her adult life. She lived in one of the four cottages with the students and did her share of the housework. 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, and after several weeks, she died peacefully at Perkins on May 24, 1889. Read more about Laura Bridgman »
Born to a Tennessee farming family in 1832, Francis Joseph Campbell was blinded in an accident at the age of four. He excelled as a musician when he later attended a school for the blind in Nashville, and at 16 he became a music teacher there. In 1857 he joined the staff of Perkins and was head of the music department for 11 years. In 1869, accompanied by his wife Sophia, a former Perkins teacher, Campbell went to Leipzig and Berlin to study music. Passing through London on his return to Boston in 1871, Campbell met Thomas Rhodes Armitage.
Dr. Armitage, a physician who had become blind in his middle years, was dissatisfied with English schools for the blind, which did not give their students the skills to become independent. He dreamed of establishing a school that emphasized music and prepared its students to become organists, piano tuners and music teachers – in short, a school like Perkins School for the Blind. After Dr. Armitage met Campbell, he wrote, “In the first half-hour’s conversation I had with him, I found we had the right man, and he found he had the right cause.”
In 1872, with the support of members of the English nobility and donations of 3,000 pounds, Dr. Armitage and Campbell established the Royal Normal College and Academy of Music for the Blind in Upper Norwood. Because Perkins teachers were experienced in teaching both rigorous academic coursework and music as preparation for a vocation, Campbell persuaded several to join him in the new venture. Between 80 and 90 percent of the college’s graduates were successful in their musical professions, and the institution enjoyed great public popularity and financial support.
In 1909, Francis Joseph Campbell was knighted by King Edward VII in recognition of his lifetime of service to people who were blind. The Royal National College today continues the work begun by Campbell and Dr. Armitage, preparing students for success in business, counseling, health services and academic pursuits.
Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart donated several hours a week of her free time as a volunteer reader and assistant to the director of dramatics at Perkins. She is quoted as saying “It takes so little to make those people forget their handicaps and troubles for a half hour. I can’t teach them braille, but I can make them laugh, and I know that’s important, too.”
Dr. Gabriel Farrell, an ordained minister, served as the fourth director of Perkins School for the Blind from 1931-1951. As director he revitalized the deafblind program, established the Perkins Pension Plan, oversaw the re-design of the Perkins Brailler, created a co-educational program for the once segregated boys and girls deafblind program and taught teacher training courses at Harvard University. Dr. Farrell is the author of The Story of Blindness, published in 1956. He served as secretary and trustee of the American Foundation for the Blind, was a member of the National Advisory Committee for the war-blinded, and served as president of the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment (ICEVI) from 1950-1951. After retiring from Perkins in 1951, he returned to the Episcopal Church where he continued to work in Cambridge, MA. Farrell died in 1968.
A devoted employee of Perkins for 44 years, Anna Gardner Fish is remembered for her loyalty to the school as well as for her vast knowledge of the people and happenings on campus. Throughout her extended service at Perkins, she wrote for almost every issue of The Lantern, right up until her death in April 1941. Whenever somebody had a question about Perkins’ history, they would turn to Miss Fish. So it is perfectly fitting that her writings be included in the Perkins Museum.
Dr. Samuel P. Hayes, a psychologist at Perkins School for the Blind between 1920 and 1958, is credited with creating the first psychological testing tool for measuring the mental ability of children with visual impairment. He adapted the Stanford-Binet testing program to create the Hayes-Binet Tests of Intelligence for the Blind in 1942, which were instrumental in demonstrating to the world that there is no significant difference in intelligence between individuals with visual impairments and those without. The Perkins-Binet tests succeeded the Hayes-Binet tests in 1980. The validity of the Perkins-Binet tests was later challenged, and it has since been taken off the market.
Sophia Hopkins was a house matron at Perkins who became close with Anne Sullivan as a student and invited her to spend time at her home during school vacations.
Julia Ward was born in New York in 1819. She married Samuel Gridley Howe in 1843, and together they had six children. Julia Ward Howe is today principally remembered for having written “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but during her lifetime she was renowned as an abolitionist, woman suffragist, essayist, lecturer and poet whose lecture tours were often sold out. She was instrumental in establishing women’s rights organizations throughout the country, and in 1908 she was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. At her funeral services in 1910, Boston’s Symphony Hall was unable to contain the multitude of mourners.
Helen Adams Keller (1880-1968) was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama. At 19 months, she survived an illness that left her deafblind and isolated, cut off from language and communication. At the age of six, Anne Sullivan arrived to tutor her, and Keller responded with the full force of her remarkable intelligence. She embraced the world with an exuberance that remained unabated throughout her 87 years.
Sullivan brought Helen Keller to Perkins, where she flourished among teachers and students who could communicate with her. Keller was always grateful for the education that allowed her to fully participate in life, and she worked to assure the same benefits and full rights for all people, particularly those with disabilities. Perkins School for the Blind, the pioneer in education of students who are deafblind, today has expanded its commitment globally, serving thousands of children who are deafblind in more than 60 countries. Helen Keller, citizen of the world and advocate of education, human rights and dignity, would have cause to be proud of the school that she called “the beginning of everything.” Read more about Helen Keller »
Winifred Holt Mather was founder of Lighthouse International (previously New York Association for the Blind).
Kathryn E. Maxfield was well known as an authority on the psychology and education of the young blind. She worked for the American Foundation for the Blind where she became a research psychologist in 1924. In 1932, she became the director of personnel and research at Perkins and did pioneering work that dealt with behavior and mental health issues among the blind and visually impaired, including those with mental disabilities.
James Osborn, known as Jimmy, became widely known in the United States as the British blind pianist who was “adopted” by members of the American Ninth Air Force. While stationed in England during World War II, the American Ninth Air Force raised money so that 10-year-old Jimmy could get an education in the United States. In 1945, James moved from his home in Romford, England to enroll at Perkins School for the Blind. In 1947, his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Osborn, moved to the United States, settling in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859), was an early founder and member of the Board of Trustees of the Perkins Institution, now Perkins School for the Blind. He was a celebrated historian, who specialized in the history of Spain, and the Spanish colonies in the Americas. He also had a severe visual impairment.
Dennis Alvin Reardon was sent to the Perkins Institution in 1855 when he was eight years old, an orphan, and homeless. He had partial vision in one eye that slowly improved and by the time he graduated from Perkins he left Boston to work in the U.S. Coast Survey in planning and charting. He later became a clerk in the Freedman’s Bureau and moved to Michigan where he was employed as a carpenter. Reardon returned to Boston “down at the heel“ and went to Dr. Howe for a job. He started as a general laborer doing kitchen work and driving a donkey cart. Shortly after arriving in Boston Reardon’s sight failed and he became totally blind. After a period of despondency Reardon started working in the printing office as “help,” and within five years he became the manager. Reardon carried many feathers in his hat, dabbling not only in mechanical engineering, but in physics, all things electrical, and extensively in architecture, building renovation and planning. He served as treasurer for the Perkins’ Alumni Association, and was a trusted friend to the students. Read more about Dennis Alvin Reardon »
Benjamin F. Smith (circa 1913-2008) was a teacher at Perkins for 38 years and later became the first visually impaired man to hold the director’s office position (1971-1977). He served as a teacher in both Lower and Upper Schools, as Dean, Principal, Assistant Director, and finally Director. Smith helped develop a career training program and a community residence plan (the first of its kind). Under Smith’s administration a number of important program changes were pioneered in order to meet the needs of a changing pupil population and to comply with the new special education legislation. The school began serving a large number of multi-impaired students and clients while maintaining its academic program for high school students. In the 1940s Smith did a great deal of original work on teaching arithmetic on the braille writer, and these innovations affected the design of the Perkins Brailler.
Joel W. Smith, a Perkins piano tuning teacher who was blind, created an alternative to embossed alphabets, called Modified or American braille, in 1878. At the time, it was a more efficient system that was faster to read and write than other forms of embossed type. It was popular in the United States and competed with the original braille system for many years.
Joseph B. Smith was among Perkins’ first students and later was Harvard’s first graduate who was blind. He was a talented musician who composed an overture as a boy that was performed at the Boston Academy of Music. After graduating with honors he became a teacher of Music at the Kentucky School for the Blind.
Robert Smithdas was a Perkins alumnus, advocate and the first person with deafblindness to receive a Master’s degree. He received his Master’s Degree in Vocational Guidance and Rehabilitation of the Handicapped from New York University in 1953. Smithdas was associate director of the Department for the Deaf-Blind of The Industrial Home for the Blind (IHB), and also served as the community relations counselor for the IHB Anne Sullivan Macy Service for Deaf-Blind Persons.
His autobiography, Life at my Fingertips, was published in 1958. A member of the Poetry Society of America and a Fellow of the International Institute of Arts and Letters, he was named Poet of the Year for 1960-61. He is also the recipient of the New York State Junior Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Service Award. Read more about Robert Smithdas »
Thomas (Tommy) Stringer was born in Washington, Pennsylvania on July 3, 1886 and became deafblind after contracting spinal meningitis in infancy. Until the age of five he was living in hospitals and almshouses. When she was 10 years old, Helen Keller learned of Tommy’s situation and was instrumental in paying for his education at Perkins by soliciting the help of donors. When Tommy arrived at Perkins in 1891, he was extremely feeble from having spent his first five years mostly confined to a bed. Tommy later became an extremely active child interested in mathematics, construction and other labors. He was especially skilled at woodworking.
Born in 1866 in western Massachusetts, Anne Mansfield Sullivan endured a childhood of deprivation, illness and abandonment. Because she had been blinded by trachoma contracted at the age of five, she came to Perkins School for the Blind in 1880, and her life took a new course. Arriving as an illiterate 14-year-old, Sullivan graduated six years later at the top of her class.
Her intelligence and determination made her the ideal candidate when Helen Keller’s parents asked the director of Perkins to send a teacher for their 7-year-old daughter. Perkins had been educating students who were deafblind for more than 50 years, and Sullivan studied and used those teaching techniques, adapting and innovating new approaches to challenge the brilliant intellect of her student Helen Keller.
Anne Sullivan is honored throughout the world as a gifted and dedicated teacher. The staff and supporters of Perkins School for the Blind are proud of her legacy and honor it daily through their commitment to education and independence for all students. Read more about Anne Sullivan »
Born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau was a philosopher and author of the classic Walden; or Life in the Woods. In 1841, four years before Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond, he wrote to apply for a teaching position at Perkins. He seemed to have relevant experience, so it is a mystery why he wasn’t hired, especially since his personal references include Ralph Waldo Emerson and Josiah Quincy, president of Harvard College and later mayor of Boston.
Academic teacher Emile Pierre Trencheri was recruited by Howe from the Paris School for the Blind in France. Trencheri counted Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson as friends. He was a musician who established the first music store in the central west, and sold the first piano shipped west of the Mississippi River.
John Vars (1855-1932) was born in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. From an early age he had problems with his eyes and ended up going completely blind by age nine. He was educated at Perkins and, after graduation, held several odd jobs including tuning pianos and running a laundry service. In 1900, he was asked by Perkins’ second director Michael Anagnos to start working with the adult blind in the state of Massachusetts. Vars was assisted by his wife, Nellie, throughout his tenure as a home teacher, before retiring at the age of 70 in 1925.
Edward J. Waterhouse (1902-1999) was born in Hale, England and graduated from Queen’s College Cambridge University in 1930. He immigrated to the United States in 1933 and began teaching mathematics at Perkins School for the Blind, where he was also a housemaster in one of the school’s residences. From 1935 to 1938 he represented Perkins in the planning and directing of WPA projects, which made educational models and embossed maps for the blind. In 1948 he was appointed manager of Perkins’ Howe Press and while in that position he did much to introduce to the world the newly designed Perkins Brailler. He also helped to establish new programs and services in the United States and worldwide for individuals with deafblindness. In addition, he worked to expand the Perkins Teacher Training Program for professionals around the world.
In 1951, Dr. Waterhouse became the fifth director of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind (now Perkins School for the Blind). He resigned as director in 1971, but continued to work as a consultant for Perkins for a number of years. He also served as a trustee of the National Braille Press (Boston) and as an overseer of the John Milton Society for the Blind (New York). He was chairman of the North American Committee on Service for the Blind and Deaf from 1970-1974. He was involved with ICEVI (formerly ICEBY, or the International Conference of Education of Blind Youth) from its very conception and its first conference in 1952, and later served as president of the conference from 1962-1967. He died in Bath, ME, on September 17, 1999.
Suggested citation for scholars
McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Figures in Perkins History. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.