Helen Adams Keller was born a healthy child on June 27, 1880, to Captain Arthur H. and Kate Adams Keller of Tuscumbia. Her father, Arthur H. Keller, was a retired Confederate Army captain and editor of the local newspaper. Her mother, Kate Keller, was an educated young woman from Memphis.
When Helen Keller was 19 months old, she was afflicted by an unknown illness, possibly scarlet fever or meningitis, which left her deaf and blind.
Helen was quite intelligent and tried to learn in her own way with taste, feel and smell. She developed a rudimentary sign language with which to communicate, but soon she realized that her family members could communicate with their mouths instead of signing. This left her isolated, unruly and prone to wild tantrums. Some members of her family considered institutionalizing her.
Keller would later write in her autobiography, “the need of some means of communication became so urgent that these outbursts occurred daily, sometimes hourly.”
Seeking to improve her condition, in 1886 Helen and her parents traveled from their Alabama home to Baltimore, Maryland, to see an oculist who had had some success in dealing with conditions of the eye. After examining Keller, he told her parents that he could not restore her sight, but suggested that she could still be educated, referring them to Alexander Graham Bell, who despite having achieved worldwide fame with the invention of the telephone, was working with deaf children in Washington, D.C.
After the visit Bell connected the Kellers to The Perkins Institute and by March 3, 1887 Anne Sullivan came to Ivy Green to be Helen’s teacher. The strong willed Sullivan, a recent graduate of the Perkins school, met her match in Helen. The two worked together even though Helen pinched, hit, kicked and even knocked out one of Anne’s teeth. Once she had gained Helen’s trust, the real work could begin.
Anne began teaching Helen using finger spelling into the child’s hand. Although Helen enjoyed this, she didn’t understand it truly until Sullivan was steadily pumping cool water into one of the girl’s hands while repeatedly tapping out the five letters in W-A-T-E-R. She continued finger spelling while pumping the water again and again as young Helen painstakingly struggled to break her world of silence.
Suddenly the signals crossed Helen’s consciousness with a meaning. By nightfall, Helen had learned 30 words using this process.
After Helen’s miraculous break-through at the simple well-pump, she proved so gifted that she soon learned the fingertip alphabet and shortly afterward to write. By the end of August, in six short months, she knew 625 words.
By age 10, Helen had mastered Braille as well as the manual alphabet and even learned to use the typewriter. By the time she was 16, Helen could speak well enough to go to preparatory school and to college. Sullivan interpreted lectures and class discussions to Helen. In 1904 she became the first deaf-blind person to graduate cum laude from Radcliffe College.
Helen became one of history’s most remarkable women. She dedicated her life to improving the conditions of the visually impaired and the hearing impaired around the world, lecturing in more than 25 countries. She helped to create the American Civil Liberties Union advocating for the rights of women and of those with disabilities.
During her life she performed on the Vaudeville circuit, earned an Oscar, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, traveled to 25 countries and met every President from Grover Cleveland to John F. Kennedy, 12 to be exact.
Keller stopped her public appearances in 1961 after she suffered a series of strokes. She was unable to attend the ceremony when President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Keller’s 1968 funeral was held at the National Cathedral, and more than 1,200 people were in attendance. Alabama Senator Lister Hill gave the eulogy. He said, “She will live on, one of the few, the immortal names not born to die. Her spirit will endure as long as man can read and stories can be told of the woman who showed the world there are no boundaries to courage and faith.”
Helen is interred at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. in the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea.
A Cathedral crypt is just off that chapel. A small, bronze plaque on the wall shows this is Keller’s final resting place. The plaque simply states: “Helen Keller and her lifelong companion Anne Sullivan Macy are interred in the columbarium behind this chapel.” Those same words are also written in Braille.
Although only Keller’s and Sullivan’s names are listed on the plaque, Polly Thomson, Keller’s companion later in life, is also interred with the other two women’s ashes.