Before Helen Keller there was Laura Bridgman. As the first person in the United States with deafblindness to learn to read and write, the young Bridgman was considered one of the most famous women in the world – second only to Queen Victoria.
Born December 21, 1829 to hardworking New England farmers, Bridgman was by all accounts a weak and fragile child who nonetheless possessed a sprightliness and intelligence uncommon for her age. When she was 2 years old, Bridgman fell ill with scarlet fever. The illness, which killed her two older sisters, stripped the curious toddler of her sight, hearing, sense of smell and nearly all of her sense of taste – leaving only her sense of touch intact.
After her illness, Bridgman tried to make sense of her world by exploring every object and surface she encountered. She loved to imitate what her mother did, helped with household chores, and learned to knit and sew. Though she developed a rudimentary sign language – with gestures for food and other basic needs, and a name sign for each family member – communication between Laura and her family was very limited. Given to frequent temper tantrums, Bridgman’s family resorted to physically overpowering the 7-year-old when she disobeyed them.
While Bridgman’s family struggled to keep her in line, Samuel Gridley Howe was looking for a way to break new ground in the fledgling field of blindness education. Five years earlier, Howe had opened the doors to the nation’s first chartered school for the blind. With his students thriving, the director sought out a new challenge. After reading an article about Bridgman and her family, Howe traveled to the family farm in Hanover, New Hampshire, and convinced Bridgman’s parents to send her to his school, the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind – known today as Perkins School for the Blind.
Bridgman arrived at Perkins in October 1837. An insatiable curiosity spurred her to master reading and writing at a time when many believed that individuals who were deafblind could not be educated. She eagerly demanded to be taught the name of everything she encountered, and learned the manual alphabet swiftly, which allowed her to communicate unencumbered by the cut-out letters Howe employed in her first months at Perkins.
A little over a year after entering the school, her curriculum was much like that of the other pupils. With a teacher constantly at her side to fingerspell to her, Bridgman attended classes and studied reading, writing, geography, arithmetic, history, grammar, algebra, geometry, physiology, philosophy and history.
Howe published an account of Bridgman’s education in the Perkins Annual Reports, making both teacher and student famous. In 1842, British writer Charles Dickens visited Perkins and wrote of his encounter with Bridgman in his book, American Notes. Bridgman was written about in newspapers and ladies’ magazines, and her fame spread throughout the world.
In 1850 Bridgman, now 20 years old, left Perkins and returned home to her family in New Hampshire. After years of being with a constant teacher-companion, she was suddenly on her own day and night. Her busy farming family had little time or patience for her and she grew increasingly depressed and frustrated.
Upon hearing of her deteriorating health, Howe and Bridgman’s friend, activist Dorothea Dix, raised an endowment to support Bridgman and brought her back to Perkins where she lived for the rest of her life in one of the four cottages with the students. As a teacher of needlework, she intimidated generations of students with her notorious intolerance of shoddy workmanship. When Perkins alumna, Anne Sullivan, went to Alabama in 1886 to teach Helen Keller, she brought Helen a doll wearing clothing that Bridgman had sewn. Bridgman died peacefully at Perkins in 1889, at the age of 59. One of the student cottages at Perkins is now named after her.
Although her fame faded in the decades following her death, Bridgman’s legacy lives on in Perkins’ Deafblind Program. It serves students age 3 to 22 who are deafblind or deaf with additional disabilities by taking a developmental approach to language, communication and curriculum. This program continues to be one of the few worldwide dedicated specifically to working with students with deafblindness.
This article includes research and language from the Perkins History Museum article on Laura Bridgman by Betsy McGinnity, Jan Seymour-Ford and K.J. Andries. For more information about the history of Perkins School for the Blind, sign up for the Perkins Archives’ newsletter. See portraits of Laura Bridgman on Flickr.