Although largely unknown today Dr. John Dix Fisher (1797-1850) was one of the more influential reformers of 19th-century Boston. He was a physician whose many contributions to medicine include his additions to the understanding of smallpox and other contagious diseases, introducing the stethoscope to the United States, pioneering childbirth anesthesia, and being an early proponent of evidence-based medicine. Fisher also led the initiative, around 1827, to create what would become the Perkins School for the Blind.
Born in Needham Massachusetts in 1797, Fisher was the youngest of 6 children. His brother, Alvin Fisher (1792-1863) is considered a pioneer of American landscape painting. After graduating from Brown University in 1820, Fisher attended the Massachusetts Medical College of Harvard University, where he received his medical degree in 1825. For the next two years, Fisher continued his medical studies in Europe. One of several renowned physicians that Fisher studied with in Paris was René Laennec, inventor of the stethoscope. Fisher introduced the stethoscope and the process of using it for diagnosis (auscultation) to the medical community in Massachusetts upon his return. While in Paris Fisher also visited L’Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles, the first school dedicated to students with blindness, founded by Valentin Haüy in 1784.
Fisher visited the school at a time when Louis Braille would have been a teacher or a student-teacher at the school. Fisher was very moved by what he saw at the school and determined that his own city of Boston would also house such a school. Upon his return to the United States, he gathered the support of many of the most prominent figures of early nineteenth-century Boston Society. These figures include William Prescott, a historian who was blind; Colonel Thomas H. Perkins, a well-known and wealthy merchant; educator and author, Edward Brooks; educational reformer, Horace Mann, and members of the Thorndike and Lowell families. This group persuaded the Massachusetts legislature to sign an act incorporating the New England Asylum for the Blind on March 2, 1829.
For more than two years the trustees searched for someone to direct the new school. Thomas Gallaudet was one notable candidate but was unable to take the position because of ill health. It was while riding horses with his old college friend Samuel Gridley Howe, that Fisher spoke of his troubles finding a director for the school. By the end of the ride, Howe’s interest in the position ended up getting him the job.
Fisher served as a Trustee from the school’s founding until his death in 1850. He also served as the physician for the school. When Howe was on his year-long honeymoon in Europe, Fisher is credited with overseeing the school and writing the 1843 Annual Report. He served the school while being a primary care physician. Later in life, he also served as an acting physician at Mass General Hospital and participated actively as a member of the Boston Society for Medical Improvement. He was active in the medical community and always interested in new techniques and innovations, including being in attendance at the Ether Dome demonstration in 1846. Fisher died on March 2, 1850, of a respiratory infection when he was just 53 years old. His funeral was well attended. The pupils from the school he started provided the music. A “Meeting of the Friends of Dr. Fisher” was held shortly after. Tributes were paid and resolutions were made in his honor. One outcome of this meeting led to a marble monument being erected in his honor at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Inscriptions on its sides read, “The Early and Efficient Advocate for the Education of the Blind,” “The Physician and Friend to the Poor,” and “Erected to the Memory of J.D. Fisher MD by Those who Loved him for his Virtues. He died in Boston March 3, 1850, Aged 53 years.”
A study in contrasts, John Dix Fisher and Samuel Gridley 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. Fisher had a vision of making Boston a more compassionate city; 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.
Samuel Gridley Howe was born on November 10, 1801, in Boston, Massachusetts to Joseph N. Howe and Martha Gridley Howe. He graduated from Brown University in 1821 and went on to Harvard Medical School to continue his studies. After graduating in 1824, he traveled to Greece to serve as a soldier and surgeon in the Greek Revolution. He served there until 1827.
While Howe was in Greece, one of his classmates from Brown, John Dix Fisher, founded the New England Asylum for the Blind. In 1831, his friendship with Fisher, with whom he expressed his interest in the school, landed him the position of founding director – a position he would dedicate his life to. Inspired, but without a model in the United States, 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.
In the year before Perkins opened its doors to students, in the autumn of 1832, Samuel Gridley Howe scoured North America and Europe for tactile books for his students. Unable to find enough books to create the small library he desired, Howe took matters into his own hands.
In 1835, Howe developed his own embossed alphabet called Boston Line Type. The new tactile writing system was compact and had few confusing flourishes, unlike popular systems in use at the time. His design took up less space on a page and was subsequently more economical to print. Next, he hired a printer, Stephen Preston Ruggles, to design a press that could produce books in Boston Line Type. In 1835, Howe printed his first Boston Line Type book called Acts of the Apostles, which was soon followed by The Blind Child’s Book, a reading textbook compiled by Howe. The books were printed not only for his students but for students and adults around the country who were in great need of books they could read themselves.
Understanding the necessity of keeping the funding for the school and printing venture separate, Howe began soliciting donations to subsidize the cost of publishing textbooks for students who were blind. Howe traveled to Washington, D.C. to advocate before Congress for the establishment of a national lending library service for readers who were blind. In the following decades, he tried to gain support for a nationally-funded library from educators and administrators but was ultimately unsuccessful. Howe’s dream, however, was finally fulfilled nearly 100 years later by the establishment of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in 1931.
Howe’s advocacy on behalf of those with disabilities continued throughout his lifetime. During his first years as director, he visited 15 states, getting school’s started in Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. Howe also helped start a school for children with intellectual disabilities in 1848 and a school for the deaf in 1867. At Perkins, Howe’s curriculum emphasized self-sufficiency, physical activity, and skills that would result in jobs for his students as adults. Howe believed that his students could be productive members of society and should be allowed to do so. He was also interested in the possibility of education for those unable to hear or see.
Five years after the Perkins School for the Blind opened its doors, Howe heard about Laura Bridgman, a young girl who had lost her sense of sight, hearing, smell, and nearly all of her sense of taste after a bout with scarlet fever. At the time, people who were deafblind were considered hopelessly unreachable. Howe, however, was eager to try to educate her. Howe traveled to Hanover, New Hampshire, and easily convinced her busy family that Laura Bridgman’s best chance lay in going to Perkins School for the Blind. She arrived at the school in October of 1837, 11 weeks before her eighth birthday. Howe published the account of Bridgman’s education in the Perkins Annual Reports, making both teacher and student internationally famous. Howe repeated his methods with other students who were deafblind — Lucy Reed, Oliver Caswell, and Almira Alden. His success in teaching these students ultimately led to the education of Helen Keller.
His causes also extended to abolitionism. In 1846, Howe entered the antislavery movement for the first time as a Congressional candidate. He was not elected but continued his abolitionist work for the rest of his life. Howe was one of the supporters of John Brown, who was the leader of the Harpers Ferry Rebellion in 1859. During the Civil War, Howe worked for the US Sanitary Commission in Washington promoting hygiene, in an effort to make hospitals and soldiers safer. Because of this work and his work towards emancipation, in 1863, he was one of three men appointed by the Secretary of War to the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission. He was charged with investigating conditions of freedmen in the South since the Emancipation Proclamation and with aiding their transition to freedom. His abolitionist work led to many acquaintances and friendships with well-known Bostonians including Charles Sumner, William Lloyd Garrison, Edward Everett, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and others.
Howe married Julia Ward in 1843 and the couple had six children. Julia Ward Howe is known for her work as a social activist, especially for women’s suffrage. She was a writer and lecturer who is best known today for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the original Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870. Like her husband, Julia was an abolitionist.
After serving as the school’s director for over 40 years, Samuel Gridley Howe died on January 9, 1876 at the age of 74. He left behind a legacy of work aimed at reform and social change, whose influence is still felt today. After his death, Michael Anagnos, Howe’s son-in-law, assumed the role of Perkins’ second director. Anagnos also assigned the name Howe Memorial Press to the printing fund, created in 1880. A large printing of the memoir of Dr. Howe in Boston Line Type was announced the following year. His legacy of service was also recognized in 1944, when a Liberty Ship was named the “SS Samuel G. Howe” in his honor. Today, Perkins most recognized building on campus bears his name.
Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764–1854), known as T.H. Perkins, was a Boston Brahmin and major figure in Boston during his lifetime. He was one of the first Boston merchants to become involved in the China trade and one of the most successful. Perkins used his wealth to invest in Massachusetts industry and devoted himself to many philanthropic causes. One of these causes was what would become known as the Perkins School for the Blind.
T.H. Perkins was born in 1764. As a young boy in Boston, Perkins lived through the American Revolution. In his memoir he recalls being five years old and seeing the victims of the Boston Massacre on King Street, (now State Street,) where he lived at the time. His father died when he was 7 leaving his mother a widower with 8 children to care for. Elizabeth Perkins assumed at least some of her husband’s business as a merchant, and was part owner of a ship called The Beaver. She was able to support her family and played an active role in charitable associations.
As a young man, T.H. Perkins used a small bequest from his grandfather (a successful merchant and fur trader) to build his own trading business with his brother James. The trading that T.H. Perkins and his brother began in the early 1780s included enslaved people in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) and goods produced by their labor (cotton, sugar, and rum). In the late 1780s, they expanded their trade to China, initially trading ginseng and furs for Chinese goods.
After the Santo Domingo slave revolution of 1791, the Perkins brothers stopped trading in Haiti and began to bring food into revolutionary France. In France, T.H. Perkins witnessed the revolution close-up. While there, he was asked by then Minister to France James Monroe to help get a 14-year-old George Washington Lafayette to the United States, which he successfully did. He would be in attendance for James Monroe’s popular speech on republicanism at the National Convention, the first French government organized without the monarchy.
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.
T.H. Perkins became Colonel Perkins in his later years, thanks to his position as commander of a battalion that provided an escort to the governor of Massachusetts at public events. He was also elected to the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives between 1805 and 1817. He invested widely in businesses in Massachusetts including the first American commercial railroad, canals, textile mills, and lead and iron mines.
After James died in 1822, T.H. Perkins turned the trading business over to younger members of his family and began to focus on philanthropy. He supported many Boston institutions, including the Boston Athenaeum, Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital, and the Museum of Fine Arts. He also signed the original charter to establish a school for the blind in Boston.
In 1832, Samuel Gridley Howe, the founding director of Perkins School for the Blind, approached T.H. Perkins to ask if the school could use his mansion on Pearl Street in Boston as the school building, and Perkins agreed. By 1837, the school had rapidly outgrown the space. Howe came to T.H. Perkins again with a new proposal, asking 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 support for the school. The money was raised within two months, and the school moved to the new site. When Perkins died in 1854 at the age of 89, he was recognized with a massive funeral service that included a choir of students from the school that he helped start and provide vital support for.
The school moved to Watertown in 1912. In appreciation for the generous support T.H. Perkins gave, both financially and in the larger community, the school took on his name in 1839.
Today, Perkins School for the Blind acknowledges that our school’s founding financially benefitted from both the slave trade and opium smuggling, and acknowledges the pain caused by this, particularly to those in Black and Chinese communities.
The founding of Perkins highlights complex issues around slavery, race, and profit derived from the exploitation of enslaved and marginalized people. While T.H. Perkins traded enslaved people and amassed enormous wealth smuggling opium into China, Dr. Howe was an abolitionist and Dr. John Dix Fisher was instrumental in improving public health as a pioneer for medical reform. As we look to our future, it is our responsibility to acknowledge our past. Perkins is committed to confronting the truth about the people and history of our institution so as not to perpetuate narratives that obscure or diminish inhumane treatment of anyone or any group of people.
Arnott, J, Coit, S., and Hale, J. (2022) Founders. Perkins Archives and Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.