In the 1946 Annual Report, Perkins director Gabriel Farrell wrote that Mary Grace (Knap) Burtt “is one of the best representatives of Perkins, carrying on the world in foreign fields.” Indeed, Burtt was not only a student and teacher at Perkins, but went on to open a school of her own for girls who were blind or visually impaired in China.
An article in the Spring 1990 issue of The Lantern explains that Burtt lost her vision after a bout with spinal meningitis when she was two years old. Seven years later, her mother moved the family to Boston in hopes of getting her daughter a better education than she had been receiving in Pittsburgh.
In 1899, Burtt started at Perkins as a kindergartener and studied at Perkins until her graduation in 1909. She continued her education at Wellesley College, where she graduated with honors in 1915, and then earned a Master of Philosophy degree from Columbia University in 1916.
While studying at Wellesley College, three Chinese students told Mary of the need for services for the blind in China and she resolved to help. True to her word, during the spring of 1917, she went to China to teach at a school for the blind with two missionaries, Rev. Edwin P. Burtt and his wife, Harriet, who had been experimenting with classes for the blind (Grossman). Over the next 50 years, she would travel to China twelve times.
She became the head of the Sun Laap School for the Blind, a school for girls who were blind or visually impaired, in South China in the 1940s. But in 1944, facing the threat of internment in a concentration camp if captured by the Japanese, Burtt left her “beloved” school and returned to Perkins to teach.
While in the United States, she was paired with a guide dog named Ruby who became her companion for the next 13 years. Burtt wasn’t back at Perkins for long, though, as she and Ruby returned to China during the summer of 1946 with supplies “ranging from clothes to a sewing machine” that were “gladly provided” by Perkins. Back in China, she found that the school had been destroyed. Burtt rebuilt and reopened the Sun Laap School for the Blind and continued to educate girls who were blind or visually impaired in the Shiu Hing area of South China. Burtt left the school for a final time in 1949 with the onset of the Chinese Civil War.
Back in the United States once again, Burtt continued her work with adults who were blind in Connecticut, “served as a braille proofreader for the National Library of Congress, and made several trips to Hong Kong” to continue working with children who were blind. She finally returned to the United States for good in 1965 at the age of 75 (Grossman).
During her first year in China, Mary adopted a young girl who was blind, Oi Lin (later Katherine Burtt). She attended Perkins kindergarten in 1920-21 and 1925-26 and followed in Mary’s footsteps, becoming a teacher herself.
On November 28, 1989, Mary celebrated her 100th birthday and became, at the time, Perkins oldest living alumna.
Burtt wrote a letter to Perkins director Michael Anagnos in 1902. It reads:
June 24, 1902
Dear Mr. Anagnos,
I think it was very kind of you to send me the catalogue and to offer to send me the books I wished.
Miss Lane said she could not get the books quick enough for me, before I went home or she would have done so.
I have decided upon three books which by the names sound as if they were very interesting and I think I will like them very much.
Hoping you are well.
With much love, I send in sincerely yours, Mary G. Knap
Grossman, Ron. “Blindness Never Stopped Mary’s Witnessing of History.” Chicago Tribune (February 25, 1990) Link