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Profiles of three of the most prominent figures in the founding of Perkins School for the Blind.

Perkins School for the Blind Founder John Dix Fisher (left) and Founding Director, Samuel Gridley Howe (right).

Samuel Gridley Howe

The following passage about Samuel Gridley Howe was written by Anna Gardner Fish and appeared on pages 3 and 8 of the March 15, 1936 issue of The Lantern.

What can we note of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe which has not already many times been stated? His is a remarkable instance of how, in spite of Shakespeare’s assertion, the good that a man does may live long after him, but especially so when his activities have been so widespread and many-sided as to catch the imagination of his compeers and serve as a torch on their onward march and when his own gifted wife and daughters have been able to keep alive his personality and the knowledge of his achievements through their inspiring chronicles.

Mr. Anagnos, his son-in law and our second director, who paid constant tribute to Dr. Howe’s splendid work for the blind and followed closely in his footsteps, was intensely gratified when, in connection with Dr. Howe’s centenary, in 1901, with its fine celebration in Tremont Temple, the Alumnae Association of Perkins Institution established a Day of Remembrance, which has been annually observed ever since at about the time of Dr. Howe’s anniversary, November 10. Similar action had long since been taken by the deaf in memory of Dr. Gallaudet, their leader, and Mr. Anagnos felt it most appropriate that such commemoration of Dr. Howe should become a yearly custom. At the same time, a club composed of the older boys of the school was re-christened the Howe Memorial Club, to Mr. Anagnos’ great satisfaction, and it has functioned from that day to this as a helpful and uplifting influence in the school.

Portrait of Samuel Gridley Howe standing with one arm tucking inside coat.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, ca. 1860.

Mr. Anagnos himself had assigned the name Howe Memorial Press to the printing fund, which he created in 1880; the name “Howe Building” was bestowed upon the brick school building in the girls’ department at South Boston, before removal to Watertown made it fitting to give that name to the administration building here; and the Howe Reading Club has long flourished in the girls’ department on. a high plane of thought and achievement. A school in South Boston bore the same honored name, and a Howe Memorial Committee has sought to connect this designation with a park or playground development in the same suburb.

It seems safe to affirm that Dr. Howe’s name will never be lost to fame or dissociated from our school. Many are the biographies and other literary works which add to our information in regard to this remarkable man, but we like best the intimate touches, the personal anecdotes, which his daughters have preserved for us in their genial, witty books and in the talks which they, as well as their mother, Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, and the doctor’s staunch friend and biographer, Mr. Frank B. Sanborn, have given to us so delightfully through many years’ observances of Dr. Howe’s birthday.

The way in which he flung his young manhood into the Grecian struggle for independence and, later, his mission in distributing relief to the Cretan refugees; his pre-eminent labors in the education of the blind, and his efforts on behalf of the deaf and of the feeble-minded, in whose betterment he was a pioneer worker, and of public school advancement; his interest in the insane, in prison reform and in the anti-slavery cause; his service on the Sanitary Commission at the time of the Civil War, to the Massachusetts Board of State Charities, and as a trustee of the Massachusetts General Hospital, all these concerns picture for us a vivid character, a leader possessing both “the seeing eye and the helping hand,” unstinting in his service to his fellow-beings and intensely alive to all forward movements. His lifework is said to have been the laying of foundations, and upon them what edifices of beneficence have been built and are still building! “Men had to follow where such a man directed,” said one of his eulogists. Indeed, in many a diversified field of endeavor must have arisen the same sigh of relief with which Dr. Fisher hailed the dawning upon his inner and outer vision of this man as destined educator of the blind, “Here is Howe, the very man we have been looking for all this time.”

Thomas Handasyd Perkins

The following passage about Thomas Handasyd Perkins was written by Anna Gardner Fish and appeared on pages 3, 8 and 10 of the September 15, 1936 issue of The Lantern.

Col. Thomas Handasyd Perkins’ interest in the institution that would later bear his name was undoubtedly quickened, if not initiated, by the overwhelming tide of public enthusiasm which had inundated Boston and its environs about 1833. In that year the women of Salem, Marblehead and Newburyport managed a fair which netted $3,000 and, not to be outdone, Boston women followed with a fair in Faneuil Hall, which produced $11,000. These were large amounts for that day and for such an infant enterprise as a school for the blind, lusty though it was to prove itself.

It was just previous to the latter fair that Col. Perkins made the magnificent offer of his mansion on Pearl Street, Boston, to house the growing school, more than doubling his gift by the proviso that it must be accompanied by the sum of $50,000, to be raised by subscription before the end of May. This condition was promptly met, and the school was soon able to establish itself anew and expand its work and service.

Up to this time, or since August, 1832, the few pupils had been gathered in the home of Dr. Howe’s parents on Pleasant Street, Boston, but the move to the commodious dwelling, given by Col. Perkins, gave it an assured position among educational institutions. Undoubtedly it was Col. Perkins’ plan that this should be a permanent location for the school, but within the next few years it seemed already outgrown. It did not lend itself to the separation and classification of the pupils, and a temporary stay in Cohasset, while repairs were made in the Pearl Street house, showed the desirability of an out-of-town site, if possible near the sea. It seemed to them then, and perhaps justifiably, that no greater gift could ever be expected to come to the school, and this may be conceded in the light of its timeliness, quite aside from consideration of the large amounts which have since come to the school through gift or legacy.

black and white profile portrait of Thomas Handaysd Perkins.

Portrait of Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins, ca. 1850. From a cased daguerreotype restored in 2014.

Col. Perkins was a merchant prince, an eminent man of affairs whose business interests encircled the globe. Born in Boston on December 15, 1764, he lost his father at the age of six years, and thereafter his education, pursuits and position in life reflected the poise and character of his very remarkable and sagacious mother. Although prepared for college, he chose a mercantile career in preference and administered the business of his importing firm so successfully as to amass a fortune during 50 years of participation. His connections with other lands led him to travel extensively in England, France, Holland, Germany, China and Java, and everywhere he was an apt and shrewd observer, his letters and diaries revealing a full comprehension of the manners and customs he encountered and appreciation of their merits and demerits.

In addition to his own business interests he shared in all the public movements of his day, which extended all the way from raising funds for completing the Washington monument to building the first real railroad in this country, a track two miles long for transporting granite from the Quincy quarries to the water’s edge. They included the presidency of the Boston Atheneum (to which he gave generously and repeatedly), the establishment of the Massachusetts General Hospital and many governmental activities. His title of Colonel, by which he was known throughout his later years, was due to his position as commander of a battalion which acted as guard and escort to the governor of Massachusetts on public occasions; his right to the title of Honorable rested upon his election to the Senate of this Commonwealth. He might have gone to Congress but did not care to accept the nomination. His services in public affairs won him recognition from President Washington who invited him to Mount Vernon and entertained him with real cordiality.

Col. Perkins had great personal strength and entire self-reliance, and he was quick and far-sighted in his decisions. His advice could be accepted with confidence, and he was regarded by all his business associates and by the young men who grew up around him as a tower of dependability and a guiding star. It was said that the foundations of wealth and position might be traced by many a young aspirant to civic honors to Col. Perkins’ first voyage to China, in 1789.

Upon his retirement from business in 1838, with a large fortune, he devoted himself to the cultivation of his estate in Brookline, the introduction of rare and beautiful trees and shrubs, and the assembling in his residence of art treasures, brought back from the many voyages overseas, which he continued to make. Of all things of beauty he was a true connoisseur.

“One of the noblest specimens of humanity to which our city has ever given birth” was said of him by the Hon. Robert C. Winthrop in a eulogy after his death, January 11, 1854. He was a sincere friend of the school throughout his life, and at his funeral the participation of our choir in the services indicated the esteem and appreciation in which he was held at Perkins Institution.

Dr. John Dix Fisher

Although not much is known about the modest and retiring Dr. John Dix Fisher, he is one of the more influential reformers of 19th-century Boston. A physician who made great contributions to the understanding of smallpox and other contagious diseases, he helped found notable institutions in Boston including the Massachusetts General Hospital, the American Statistical Association, and, most importantly for this story, the Perkins School for the Blind.

It was Dr. Fisher who conceived the idea of starting a school in the United States for children who were blind. While he was in medical school, Fisher studied in Paris where he visited The National Institution for Blind Youth. He was very moved by what he saw, and determined that his own fine city of Boston would also house such a school. He must have been very persuasive, for he soon gathered the support of many of the most prominent figures of early nineteenth century Boston Society. William Prescott, a blind historian, Colonel Thomas H. Perkins, a well known China Trade merchant, Edward Brookes, Horace Mann, and members of the Thorndike and Lowell families were included. This group persuaded the Massachusetts legislature to sign an act incorporating the New England Asylum for the Blind on March 2, 1829.

Oil painting of John Dix Fisher in oval gold frame

Portrait of John Dix Fisher, painted by his brother Alvan Fisher, ca. 1840. 

For more than two years the trustees searched for someone to direct the new school. Thomas Gallaudet and many other prominent figures turned them down. Folklore at Perkins has it that, in the summer of 1831, Dr. Fisher was walking on Boylston Street with two other trustees when he encountered his college friend, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. “The very man we have been looking for!” Dr. Fisher exclaimed. While the actual circumstances may have been less theatrical, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe was just the kind of man they were seeking.

A study in contrasts, Fisher and Howe had studied together at Brown University and at Harvard Medical School. Fisher was soft-spoken and studious; Howe was a handsome extrovert who rode an exquisite black stallion on the city streets of Boston. While Fisher studied in Europe, Howe joined the freedom fighters in Greece. John Dix Fisher had a vision of making Boston a more compassionate city; Samuel Gridley Howe was seeking a way to make his mark on the world. Together these men began a venture that changed the lives of countless people who were blind.

Upon accepting the position, Howe set off, in the autumn of 1831, to visit schools in Europe to study their techniques. He later said he “found in all much to admire and to copy, but much also to avoid.” Nearly all European schools fell into one of two camps: some emphasized industrial education, while others taught academic skills exclusively. Howe realized the necessity of integrating these approaches and teaching the whole child. The Perkins approach to education would give students both the ability to think and the skills to support themselves with the goal of turning out independent, productive, well-educated members of society.

Howe returned, in the summer of 1832, with many ideas and two teachers, one from Edinburgh and another from Paris. He selected seven students and opened his school in several rooms in his father’s house. With few teaching materials and only three raised print books from England, he soon began devising his own materials. Within a few months his students were making remarkable progress, but the school was in debt. Realizing the need for publicity, Howe set aside his misgivings about making a show of his pupils’ skills and organized a demonstration before the Massachusetts legislature, which allocated money for the school. With funding, the institution grew rapidly and soon required new quarters.

Trustee Thomas Handasyd Perkins offered to loan his mansion on Pearl Street in Boston, provided the school could raise matching funds. This established the school’s tradition of soliciting private donations to supplement public support, a funding practice that has served the school well throughout its history.

Within six years, the house on Pearl Street was overflowing with 60 eager young students, and many more were on a waiting list. Col. Perkins allowed the school to sell his mansion and purchase an old hotel. In 1839, the school moved to the South Boston location, where it remained for the next 73 years. As a tribute to Col. Perkins’s generosity, the Board of Trustees renamed the school Perkins Institution for the Blind, and it has proudly borne his name ever since.

Suggested citation for scholars

McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Founders. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.

Elizabeth McClellan, a child born both deaf and blind due to a rubella infection, learned new communication skills after coming to Perkins.

Throughout history, Perkins emerges stronger from world-changing events

Prof. James Trent and Molly Stothert-Maurer (Archivist) peruse the collection and share a chuckle over a postcard from the Wenham Museum showing a miniature Julia Ward Howe doll. Photo credit: Anna Miller.

Howe family collection now available to researchers

Grid of well known historical figures, staff and alumni related to Perkins

Figures in Perkins history