Annie Sullivan

Born April, 1866
Died October 20, 1936 in Forest Hills, New York


Annie Sullivan was born in April of 1866 in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts. As a young child her family was very poor. She contracted a disease that affected her eyesight through out her life, trachoma. While Sullivan could see a little, her eyesight was very weak and often her eyes irritated her.

At a young age Sullivanís mother died and her father, who had an ill temper was unable to care for the family. She and her brother Jimmy lived with relatives for a short time then when Sullivan was ten she and her brother were sent to Tewksbury Almshouse, the state poorhouse, in Tewksbury, Massachusetts on February 22, 1876. Many of the people who lived at the poorhouse were old, or blind, or physically disabled. The living conditions were crowded and unclean. Jimmy who was lame and weak from infancy died only a few months after they arrived.

Sullivan lived in the poorhouse for four years. During her time there, she learned about a school for blind children. Sullivan wanted desperately to go. Then one day when the board of directors for the poorhouse was meeting at the facility, Sullivan interrupted them and expressed her desire to go to school. One of the men at the meeting promised to help her, and soon afterwards Sullivan left Tewksbury for the Perkins Institution in Boston, Massachusetts.

The Perkins Institution was a famous school for the blind. While she attended the Perkins school Sullivan was taught to read Braille. She was also sent to the hospital several times for operations on her eyes. The operations were successful enough that Sullivan was eventually able to read with her eyes as well as her fingers. At the age of twenty Sullivan graduated from the Perkins Institution.

After graduation, Sullivan was hired as a teacher by a Captain and Mrs. Keller. The Kellers lived in Tuscumbia, Alabama. They had a six year old daughter named Helen Keller. Struck with illness at the age of two, Helen, was left deaf and blind. Unable to hear words to learn speech she had not learned to talk.

In order to work with Helen Keller, Sullivan studied the notes of a famous instructor, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, from the Perkins Institution. Dr. Howe had worked with a girl named Laura Brigman who was blind and deaf just as Helen was. Eventually Dr. Howe had taught Brigman to communicate through a system of forming finger spelling for the deaf into a personís hand. Before Sullivan left Perkins to start her new job, she went to visit with Brigman who by that time was an old woman. Brigman was interested in learning about Helen and gave Sullivan a doll to take to her new pupil.

Sullivan soon learned that the Kellers, not knowing how to work with their deaf and blind child, had not trained her at all. They allowed her behavior to control the family. Helen Keller often threw temper tantrums to get her own way and the Kellers would not allow Sullivan to enforce simple rules of behavior. Sullivan realized that Helen would have to be removed from her family if she was to ever learn. Eventually the Kellers agreed to allow Sullivan to take Helen to their garden cottage to be alone together. Sullivan taught the Kellers the finger alphabet for the deaf. Because Helen was blind the letters had to be formed in her hand where she could feel each letter. Eventually Helen realized that the letters spelled into her hands had a meaning.

Sullivan continued to teach Helen Keller at her home for a few years. Later she asked to take Helen to the Perkins Institute. At Perkins Sullivan taught Helen how to speak and how to interpret what others spoke by feeling the vibrations in their throats. After Helen's father died, Mrs. Keller entrusted Sullivan with Helen's care. Sullivan and her pupil became well known. She helped Helen to attend college.

Sullivan married a writer named John Macy, and Helen Keller continued to live with them. Sullivan helped Helen write her autobiography. Once again Sullivan had trouble with her eyes and her husband left. Sullivan and Helen were left with very little money. They traveled to Hollywood, California to make a movie of Helenís life. They also performed stage shows.

In 1927 a woman named Neela Brady wrote Sullivanís biography which was eventually published in 1933. To provide for Helen Kellerís continued care, Sullivan taught a young woman named Polly Thomson to help and work with Helen. Sullivan was given an honorary degree from Temple University in 1932 four years before her death on October 20, 1936. Since then, a fountain was dedicated to Sullivan in 1960 at Radcliffe College, remembering the moment that at the water pump Sullivanís work with Helen Keller helped Helen to understand that finger spelling had a meaning.

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