Alexander Mell and the Imperial Royal Institute for the Education of the Blind in Vienna

A Lasting Legacy and Collaboration

Instructor and students in Vienna

Three young male students and an instructor from the Imperial Royal Institute for the Education of the Blind in Vienna pose with educational materials from around 1878-1898. An instructor sits down with an embossed book on his lap while a student who stands nearby reads the book with his fingers. Next to them is another student touching a large mounted bird that resembles a turkey with his right hand and what appears to be a mounted ferret with his left hand. The animals are resting on a small table. There appear to be some scientific instruments also on the table, one of which includes wires. The wires extend to an object that looks like an “X” which a student to the right is holding. The student is sitting on a small stool close to the ground. A slate and stylus are placed near him and a violin rests on stacked books in front of him.

September 16, 2020

When Perkins second Director Michael Anagnos formed the Blindiana Library in 1880, the Perkins Research Library was born. Currently known as the Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, this library contains one of the largest collections anywhere related to the non-medical aspects of blindness. It also houses the Perkins Archives. These resources continue to be accessed by educators, students, historians, visitors to Perkins’ Museum, and countless others. The Blindiana Library was inspired by, and initially a duplicate of, a collection at another school serving pupils who were blind. This school was located in Vienna, Austria and the man behind the collection was its’ Director, Alexander Mell.

Alexander Mell (1850-1931) began his career as a teacher and a professor of natural history at a teacher’s college in Yugoslavia. His work there raised his profile and in 1886 he was offered the Directorship of the Imperial Royal Institute for the Education of the Blind in Vienna (K.K.. Blinden Erziehungs Institutes, Wein) (Allen, 31). The school was founded in 1804 by Johann Wilhelm Klein, known as "The Father of the Blind" in Austria. At the time Mell was hired the school had been without a director for three years (Allen, 31). Mell would remain its director until 1919. During his tenure, Mell is credited with shifting the commonly held belief in the Austro-Hungarian Empire that people who are blind need to be cared for in homes and with social welfare, to acknowledgment that they can live independently and as part of society (Wurzer, 28). In 1896 he was put in charge of building a new Institute for the Education of the Blind, which held a braille printing shop and a library for readers who were blind (Wurzer, 29). Other lasting contributions would include Mell’s work and writings on the pedagogy of education for students who were blind, providing a teacher training course at the school, and saving and making available resources documenting the history of blindness. 

This last contribution would involve cataloging reference resources and “experimental” materials left by his predecessors and then actively seeking out and obtaining more (Allen, 31). He would use this collection as a research “laboratory” for his writings and it wasn’t long before doctoral students interested in the education of blind students were utilizing the collections in their study (Allen, 31). When Perkins' second director, Michael Anagnos, visited European School's for the Blind in 1900, he was so impressed with Mell's library that upon his return to America he started a similar collection at Perkins, of “historic value to the research scholar” which became the Blindiana Library (Fish, 26). Duplicate copies of books that were in the collection in Vienna were obtained, and Mell was given a “carte blanche order to send to Boston duplicates of everything found” (Allen, 32). This duplication proved to be very fortunate. Imperial Royal Institute for the Education of the Blind’s collection was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis during World War II (Diamond, 4). When Hitler’s Germany annexed Austria in 1938, many library collections were looted and taken to Germany, or the victims of book raids that resulted in the destruction of an estimated 90% of a library’s collection (Stummvoll, 38).  In 1945 the school Mell built was almost completely destroyed (Wurzer, 29). Most of the Institute’s renowned collections were subsequently lost. Perkins contains many copies of those rare books and other resources in the Perkins Archives, that due to the cooperation and support of Alexander Mell, can be found in Watertown today. 

Mell was also essential in Perkins’ tactile object collection and museum. In 1910 Mell added a Museum for the Blind to the school and filled it with tactile objects (Wurzer, 29). Captivated by this large and sophisticated tactile museum, Anagnos was inspired to expand the Perkins collection. Many of the European prints, reading and writing devices, adapted games, and other objects now part of the Perkins Archives were purchased through Mell, including the Blind in Art Collection. These artifacts are often labeled or accompanied by a small card providing some provenance information. A map of the Austrian Empire that has been adapted for use by the blind, is labeled, “Made in Vienna and received by Perkins from Alexander Mell in 1911. Amount paid $2.48.” A digitized copy of this map is described and available on Flickr. Mell was an avid collector who enjoyed hunting down tactile objects, and with his assistance, the holdings of the Perkins museum grew impressively from 1880 through 1910 (McGinnity et al, “Science”). 

Mell’s contributions exceeded the walls of his institution. He also founded an after-care agency, a working home for blind men, and a retreat for blind women while being actively involved in “numerous scientific and humanitarian associations”(Allen, 34). Before he was able to retire he was forced out as Director, a deed attributed as the disruptive consequences of the first world war which resulted in the outings of several Directors of Institutions (Allen, 34). Mell retained his pension however and received the honorable Austrian title of Hofraft from the Emperor for the re-education and rehabilitation of blinded soldiers. He died just 2 years after celebrating his 50th anniversary, surrounded by his children, and recognized as “Dean of his profession” (Allen, 34). When Edward E. Allen succeeded Micheal Anagnos as Director in 1907, he continued the collaboration with Mell as well as the friendship. In a remembrance published in Outlook for the Blind,  Allen wrote, “Our friend is now gone and past grief but his memory will happily survive as of a foremost teacher of his people, the blind, and of an outstanding benefactor of their cause for which it can be said, “He Cared (Allen, 34).”

Related Resources: 

AG44 Perkins Institutional History: Publications, Clippings, and Manuscripts Perkins School for the Blind Archives, Watertown, MA.

AG53 Perkins Correspondence Collection Perkins School for the Blind Archives, Watertown, MA.

AG129 Blind in Art Collection Perkins School for the Blind Archives Digital Collections, Flickr.

“Imperial Royal Institute for the Education of the Blind, Vienna”  Perkins School for the Blind Archives Digital Collections, Flickr.

Selected Works by Alexander Mell:

Das Museum des Blindenwesens in Wien [The Museum of the Blind in Vienna]. Wien, [1902].

Encyklopädisches Handbuch des Blindenwesens [Encyclopedic Handbook of the Blind]. Wien, A. Pichlers witwe & Sohn, 1900. Internet Archive.

Geschichte des kaiser. Konigl. Blinden-Erziehungs-Institutes in Wein 1804-1904 [History of the Imperial-Royal Institute for the Blind in Vienna. 1804-1904]. K.K. Blinden-Erziehungs-Inst., 1904.

Johann Wilhelm Klein's Stacheltypenapparat [Johann Wilhelm Klein's spike type apparatus]. Kiel, Schmidt & Klaunig, 1892.

Kurze Ratschläge und Winke zur richtigen Erziehung blinder Kinder [Brief advice and hints on how to bring up blind children correctly]. Schulbücher-Verl, 1913.

Works Cited: 

August, Wurzer, “Alexander Mell.” Review of the European Blind, vol. 4, 1975, pp. 28-32.

Allen, Edward E. “Alexander Mell – An Appreciation.” Outlook for the Blind, vol. 26, no. 1, March 1932, pp. 31-14. Internet Archive.

Diamond, Isabella S. “Remarks by Isabella Stevenson Diamond on the Occasion of the Dedication of the New Blindinan Library.” The Lantern, December 1966, pp. 3-13. Internet Archive.

Fish, Anna Gardner. “Michael Anagnos.” The Centennial of Michael Anagnos Second Director of Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind and the Semi-Centennial of the Kindergarten for the Blind Which he Founded: A Record of the Proceedings May 20, 1937, 1937, pp. 23-28. Internet Archive.

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

Stummvoll, Josef. “Austrian Libraries, Past and Present.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 20, no. 1, 1950, pp. 33–38. JSTOR.

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