Perkins was founded in 1829, becoming the first school for the blind in the United States. Our two founders, Dr. John Dix Fisher and Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, worked together in the cause of education and opportunity for people who were blind, with an impact that now reaches around the world.
Dr. John Dix Fisher (1797-1850) was one of the more influential reformers of 19th-century Boston. Beginning in 1827, he led the initiative to create what would become the Perkins School for the Blind. Moved by what he saw at the Paris school for the blind, the first of its kind in the world, Fisher returned to Boston inspired to start a similar school. Today, Perkins is an international NGO that works in 100 countries, helping children with multiple, complex disabilities and visual impairments and their families.
Fisher gathered together friends and prominent figures of Boston Society in the cause. The group of 39 Bostonians subsequently applied to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a charter for the new school. Fisher served as a Trustee from the school’s founding until his death in 1850. He also served as the physician for the school.
Learn more about John Dix Fisher
From the beginning of his time as the school’s founding director, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876) implemented innovative strategies, technologies, and tools that allowed him to serve a population of students who had previously been excluded from education in the United States.
As the director, Howe implemented an educational plan that balanced academics, music, and physical activity, encouraging long-term well-being and opportunities for students. By 1834, he was working with Stephen P. Ruggles to develop Boston Line Type, a cutting-edge form of embossed writing that was easier to read by touch than other forms in use at the time. Additionally, he spearheaded education for students who were deafblind; Perkins graduate Laura Bridgman was the first deafblind person to have a formal education. The Howe Innovation Center at Perkins is named in his honor.
Learn more about Samuel Gridley Howe
T.H. Perkins, a successful Boston merchant, was an early benefactor of Perkins. He supported the vision of founder John Dix Fisher to establish a school for the blind in Boston, originally called the New England Asylum for the Blind, and became an early member of the Board of Trustees. In 1832, Samuel Gridley Howe, co-founder and first head of the School, asked if the rapidly growing School could use T.H. Perkins’ mansion on Pearl Street in South Boston. When the School outgrew that space in 1837, Howe asked T.H. Perkins if the school could sell the mansion and use the proceeds to buy a former hotel in South Boston. T.H. Perkins agreed but required the school to promptly raise $50,000 from the community to demonstrate broader support. Howe raised these matching gifts within two months, and the School moved to the new site. In 1839, the school adopted the name Perkins in appreciation of this important financial contribution.
In recent years, the leadership and employees at the Perkins School for the Blind began conversations about how to present our history, in particular T.H. Perkins’ troubling past. As a young man, he used a small bequest to build his own trading business with his brother James. Their initial trading in the early 1780s included both enslaved people in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) and goods produced by their labor (cotton, sugar, and rum). Around 1815, the Perkins brothers began to trade opium, a common medical ingredient of the time, in China. When the opium trade was banned in 1817 by the Chinese government, Perkins and other merchants smuggled it into the country. This highly lucrative and illegal trade is credited with making Perkins one of the wealthiest men in America at the time. In later years, Perkins became a benefactor of many prominent Boston institutions including the Boston Athenaeum, Mass General Hospital, and the Museum of Fine Arts.
Today, Perkins School for the Blind acknowledges that this benefactor from its early days had a connection to both the slave trade and opium smuggling. We regret having an association with this prominent Bostonian whose support of slavery and opium trade is offensive and contrary to our values. We acknowledge the pain that T.H. Perkins caused among the Black and Chinese communities.
We are also proud of the reputation we have built around the world as the Perkins School for the Blind. We do not honor T.H. Perkins. Rather, our use of the name Perkins honors almost two hundred years of leadership in inclusive education for children with disabilities, and our important role in promoting the belief that every child can learn, anywhere in the world.
Learn more about T.H. Perkins