Francis Joseph Campbell

Educator and advocate

Francis Joseph Campbell in academic regalia

Francis Joseph Campbell was born in the rural mountains of Tennessee in 1832 and grew up on a farm in Winchester. When he was three and a half years old, he lost his vision after running into a thorn bush while playing (Bina). 

Campbell was an abolitionist and advocate of human rights throughout his life, sometimes running afoul of public opinion. In years before the Civil War, his music training practice was boycotted after he taught reading to a sighted formerly enslaved person and refused to renounce his anti-slavery views (Bina). A talented musician, Campbell was passionate about mathematics and believed that “every piece of music can be reduced…to a mathematical problem” (Campbell in Accino, 90). 

Throughout his life, Campbell worked as a teacher and advocate of people who are blind. C. Warren Bledsoe wrote that Campbell “was the character and personality on which modern work for the blind hinges. After [Samuel Gridley] Howe, he was the undoubted champion of the compatibility of blind people, both by his own example, and his demands on himself and what he asked of other blind people and society” (Bina). When Campbell was inducted in to the American Printing House for the Blind’s Hall of Fame in 2015, Michael Bina summarized that Campbell, “spent his life challenging authority and adamantly advocated that blind people be surrounded by high expectations.”


In 1844, when he was twelve years old, he became the second enrollee at the newly established Tennessee School for the Blind. Early on, the school music teacher deemed Campbell a “hopeless case” and recommended that he study basket weaving or brush making. Determined to follow his passion, however, Campbell persisted and took lessons from a fellow student, ultimately convincing the teacher to give him another chance (Accino, 84). After graduating at age sixteen in 1848, Campbell was hired as the new music teacher at the school. Two years later, he served as interim superintendent for three months. 

Campbell also attended the Bridgewater Normal School, where he met his first wife, Mary Frances Bond. The two were married in August 1856. Passionate about mathematics, Campbell earned a bachelors degree in the subject from the University of Tennessee before teaching music at the Wisconsin Institute for the Blind in Madison from 1857 to 1858 (Accino, 88). 

At Perkins

In 1858, the newly married Campbells traveled to Boston, seeking medical care for Mary. During this trip, Campbell arrived at Perkins unannounced and asked to observe classes. At the end of his day-long visit, Perkins director Samuel Gridley Howe met with Campbell to hear his thoughts on the programs. Campbell “heavily criticized” the music classes he had observed, saying that the school was not training “the blind here to make them independent” (Accino, 88). After hearing Campbell’s suggestions for improvements, Howe decided to hire him on a trial basis. After three months, Howe hired Campbell as an assistant music teacher, saying that he had “requisite natural qualifications, and great acquired advantages” (Accino, 88). He was promoted to head teacher shortly after and served as the director of the department from 1858 until 1869.  

When Campbell first started his work at Perkins, teachers who were blind were paid half the rate of sighted teachers. Campbell told Howe that would not accept a salary for a year. If he was successful after that year, he would be paid the “sighted teacher” rate (Bina). After one year, Campbell’s teaching and students were so successful that Howe paid him the “sighted teacher” salary and all the other teachers who were blind were also paid the higher rate as well (Bina). 

Campbell continued his scientific approach to his teaching methods throughout his time at Perkins. Uncommon at the time, he measured his work by doing outcome studies (Welsh, 161). With Howe’s permission, Campbell selected twenty students “to his own criteria and then be judged on the basis of their success” (Bledsoe 1971 in Welsh, 161). The students seem to have been chosen based on their “abstract reasoning skills rather than their musicality” (Accino, 90). He took responsibility for all aspects of their training and education, beyond music. A firm believer in the benefits and importance of physical activity, Campbell was known to ice skate with his students at five o’clock in the morning (Welsh, 161). After eleven years, nineteen of the twenty students had graduated from Perkins and were employed in a music occupation (Welsh, 160). 

While working at Perkins, Campbell continued to advocate for the education of students with disabilities. In 1860, he proposed a school and music conservatory at Harvard College for students who are blind. Alas, Harvard declined to answer Campbell’s proposal (Accino, 95).

In 1867, Samuel Gridley Howe took an extended leave of absence from his position as Director of the Perkins Institute. In his absence, Campbell managed the school as “domestic superintendent.” When Howe returned, he sent Campbell on a series of concert-exhibitions across New England (Accino, 99). During this time, Campbell planned a trip to study at the Leipzig Conservatory in Berlin and Howe granted him a sabbatical year with “generous terms” that September (Accino, 101). While Campbell was away, a number of students complained “bitterly” about Campbell and a group even submitted a petition accusing him of “disregard of truth” and an “uncontrollable temper” (Accino, 105). With this in mind, Howe considered Campbell’s request to extend his leave through the following spring and in March 1870 Howe notified Campbell that another teacher would replace him at Perkins permanently, thus ending his time at Perkins (Accino, 105). 

Europe and the Royal School

Campbell’s work did not stop with his departure from Perkins. While in Berlin, Campbell visited London and shared his idea of a school and conservatory for students who are blind in the United States with Dr. Thomas Armitage, a philanthropist, physician, and surgeon who closed his practice when he lost his sight (Welsh, 162). Armitage, however, urged Campbell to open the school in London and together they opened the Royal Normal College and Academy of Music for the Blind on March 1, 1872 with two students enrolled. They had gained funding and land for the school from the Duke of Winchester after Campbell offered him a “blindfold lesson during which he pointed out the various landmarks and clues that could help blind students travel safely over the campus” (Welsh, 162). 

Francis Joseph Campbell
Francis Joseph Campbell

The Royal Normal College “operated on Campbell’s belief that with good instruction, blind people could accomplish anything to which they set their minds” (Welsh, 163). The curriculum included a strong base of physical education, an “academic program that emphasized logic and mathematics as a basis for music education” (Welsh, 163). Students were also trained in social skills and preparation for careers “as instructors and performers and…as piano tuners” (Welsh, 163). Like Perkins, the school was arranged with cottages for student housing and a “large central building encompassing classrooms and a concert hall” (Accino, 109). 

Teachers for the Royal Normal College and Academy of Music for the Blind were recruited from Perkins, many of them his former colleagues. Among the teachers who left Perkins to join the Royal Normal College were Mary Greene, Joel West Smith, and Sophia Faulkner (who would become Campbell’s second wife in 1875 after Mary’s death in 1873). Lady Francis Campbell prepared and presented a photo album, available on Flickr, from the Royal Normal College “in memory of two pleasant years (1870-1872), spent in that institution as a teacher.” In addition to teachers, Howe fulfilled Campbell’s requests for embossed books and copies of the Perkins annual reports. Howe supported Campbell’s efforts and work as he “extended the influence of Perkins abroad” (Accino, 107). 

In the 1880s, Campbell returned to the United States, returning to his hopes of founding a conservatory (Accino, 110). Campbell met with President Grover Cleveland to propose his idea of a national college and conservatory for students who are blind. President Cleveland, however, “politely declined,” explaining that “he was too busy with other obligations” (Accino, 111). 

Campbell returned to the Royal School and remained there, continuing “to advocate high musical and educational standards” for another twenty-one years until his retirement in 1912 (Accino 113). In 1909, Campbell became a naturalized British subject and was knighted by King Edward VII to honor his contributions to the education of the blind (Accino, 114). Campbell referred to himself as “American by birth; Englishman by choice.” 


Since his death in 1914, Campbell’s legacy lived on through the teachers he mentored, like Joel West Smith who is credited with introducing United States Braille (Welsh). Campbell’s advocacy and work forced people to reconsider their understanding of blindness (Accino, 114) and led to school programs that focus on ensuring students to become “independent, employed and self-sufficient” (Bina). With his emphasis on a curriculum that included physical activity, vocational training, music, development of social skills, self-determination, and advocating, Campbell is said to be the original pioneer of the Expanded Core Curriculum (Bina).

The American Library Association awards a Francis Joseph Campbell Award annually to “a person who has made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of library services for the blind.” 

Campbell and Armitage’s school, now called The Royal National College for the Blind, is still in operation.

Works cited:

Accino, Michael. Gestures of Inclusion: Blindness, Music, and Pedagogy in Nineteenth-Century Thought. University of California Davis. ProQuest, LLC. : Ann Arbor, MI. 2016.

Bina, Michael. “Sir Francis Joseph Campbell: Inducted 2015.” American Printing House for the Blind Hall of Fame, Lexington, KY. 2015.

Welsh, Richard L. “Sir Francis Joseph Campbell and His Family: The First Family in Professional Services for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired.” Re:view (39)4 : Winter 2008. 158-170.

Suggested citation:

Coit, Susanna. “Francis Joseph Campbell: Educator and advocate.” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA. January 20, 2022. 

Portrait of Lady Campbell. In three-quarter profile with hair parted down the middle and braided in the back. Wearing a dress with lace collar and dark lacy shawl.

Lady Campbell

Portrait of Emile Pierre Trencheri, 1832.

Emile Trencheri

Edward Kennedy, facing the camera, shaking Richard C. Carlson's hand. Carlson's back is to the camera.

Edward M. Kennedy’s 1988 Perkins Graduation Speech