Helen Keller is arguably Perkins’ most famous student, with her teacher Anne Sullivan a close second. The story of the little girl who was deafblind and learned to communicate when her teacher spelled “water” into her hand was made famous by the movie “The Miracle Worker.” Keller grew up to become a household name as an author, political activist and advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. But as famous as she was, there’s a lot you probably don’t know about Helen Keller.
- She worked the vaudeville circuit. In 1920, Keller and Sullivan began a five-year stint in vaudeville to supplement their dwindling finances. Touted as the “8th Wonder of the World,” Keller performed a 20-minute show, where she told her life story in her own words (translated by Sullivan). Q&A sessions with the audience allowed Keller to demonstrate her intelligence and sense of humor. For example, shortly after Prohibition became the law of the land, she was asked by an audience member, “What do you think is the most important question before the country today?” Keller’s response: “How to get a drink.” She left the vaudeville circuit after Sullivan’s health declined too much for them to continue.
- She was great friends with Mark Twain. The two met when Keller was 14, and remained friends until Twain died 16 years later. He admired her sense of humor and sharp intelligence. Twain, in fact, was the first to call Sullivan a “miracle worker” for bringing Keller out of the darkness. When they met in person, Keller was able to identify Twain by his distinctive tobacco-infused scent – he smoked 10 to 20 cigars a day.
- She was the first person with deafblindness to earn a college degree. From Radcliffe, no less, from which she graduated cum laude in 1904 with a bachelor of arts degree.
- She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. The nomination came after Keller visited the Mideast in 1952 and met with local leaders to advocate for the rights of those who were blind or disabled. She secured a promise from Egypt’s Minister of Education to create secondary schools for the blind that could lead to a college education. The legacy of Keller’s visit also lives on in Israel, in Jerusalem’s Helen Keller School, which was renamed in her honor.
- She was extremely political. In addition to being a member of the Socialist Party, Keller was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an outspoken advocate for the rights of women and a strong supporter of birth control. These were all pretty radical views for a woman in the early 20th century.
- She fell in love and almost eloped. Keller was in her late 30s when Sullivan fell suddenly ill and a man named Peter Fagan was brought in to be Keller’s private secretary. They fell in love and Keller planned to elope with him. But her family strongly objected because, like many at the time, they believed that women with disabilities should not marry. The interference of Keller’s family ultimately thwarted the couple’s plans. It’s interesting to wonder how Keller’s life would have been different had she been allowed to follow her heart.
- She remains influential and respected even after her death. In 1999 her name appeared on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most important figures of the 20th century, alongside such iconic figures as Albert Einstein, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi. That’s an impressive accomplishment for anyone, and more so for a woman who couldn’t see or hear.
For more information on Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, check out the Perkins archives. Additional information for this blog was derived from the New York Times, the American Federation for the Blind and Embrace the Middle East, Neatorama.com, and the History of Redding (Connecticut).