Helen Keller was a blind and deaf activist, author, and educator who became a symbol of courage and inspiration to millions around the world. Her life story was told in the award-winning The Miracle Worker.
She is often credited with helping bring an end to widespread public indifference over the welfare of handicapped individuals.
Biographical fast facts
Full or original name at birth: Helen Adams Keller
Date, time and place of birth: June 27, 1880, at 4:02 p.m., at the "Ivy Green" plantation, 300 West North Commons, Tuscumbia, Alabama, U.S.A.
Date, time, place and cause of death: June 1, 1968, at 3:35 p.m., "Arcan Ridge" in Easton, near Westport, Connecticut, U.S.A.* (Natural causes)
Siblings: Phillips Brooks Keller (brother)
Older half-brothers: James Keller and William Simpson Keller (from her father's prior marriage)
Sister: Mildred Keller
Note: Helen's father, Captain Arthur H. Keller, was previously married to Sarah E. Rosser of Memphis. Rosser died in 1877 at age 38.
Father: Captain Arthur H. Keller (a gentlemen farmer and newspaper editor) (b. February 5, 1836 - d. August 29, 1896**, Tuscumbia, Alabama)
Mother: Kate (Adams) Keller (d. June 1921)
Interment location: Helen Keller was cremated and her ashes interred at St. Joseph's Chapel, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.
Error corrections or clarifications
* The overwhelming majority of sources erroneously report Helen Keller died in "Westport" Connecticut. In actuality, she died at her home, "Arcan Ridge" located in Easton, Connecticut. The dateline on most of her obituaries was Westport, Connecticut, and this was the place of death many mistakenly attributed to Ms. Keller. Most biographies continue to misreport not only her place of death, but also the location of her home as "Westport" Connecticut. The problem is exacerbated by the fact Helen Keller was living in Easton, but had a Westport post office box for all her correspondence. Even her stationery listed a Westport post office box while she lived in Easton. Westport is just a few miles to the south of Easton, and it was not uncommon for some residents to get their mail there, or in nearby Fairfield. Officials from the local historical society there in Connecticut have repeatedly addressed the issue, but the discrepancy about where Keller's home was located, and where she died, continues to unnecessarily puzzle some. One last time -- she died at her home "Arcan Ridge" located in Easton, Connecticut, not Westport, Connecticut.
** A few sources erroneously report "August 19, 1896" as the date Helen Keller's father died. Helen Keller herself addressed his death in a letter to Charles Dudley Warner, dated Thursday, September 3rd, 1896, in which she said, "... My heart is too full of sadness to dwell upon the happiness the summer has brought me. My father is dead. He died last Saturday at my home in Tuscumbia, and I was not there." That confirms the August 29th, 1896 date of death previously reported by most sources.
The first 18 months of her life, Helen Keller had normal, healthy eyesight and hearing. But in February of 1882, Helen was suddenly struck ill with a severe fever, and was not expected to survive. Her illness is now thought to have been either scarlet fever or meningitis, though doctors of that era called it "brain fever." Ms. Keller describes it in her autobiography, The Story of My Life: "They called it acute congestion of the stomach and brain. The doctor thought I could not live. Early one morning, however, the fever left me as suddenly and mysteriously as it had come. There was great rejoicing in the family that morning, but no one, not even the doctor, knew that I should never see or hear again." Her parents, Captain Arthur H. Keller, a former Civil War Confederate Army officer, gentlemen farmer and newspaper editor, and her mother, Kate Keller, did indeed rejoice. Their joy was short-lived.
Trapped in a world of darkness, unable to speak, see or hear anything that was going on around her, she grew to be an unruly child, frequently throwing raging tantrums, thrashing, kicking and biting those around her. Rather than institutionalize young Helen, as some had suggested, her parents hired a private tutor. March 3rd, 1887, Anne Mansfield Sullivan entered her life.
Annie gave hours of instruction each day, which led Helen to quickly imitate the manual alphabet. Though she rapidly learned the various finger symbols, Helen failed to comprehend their significance. The poignant scene of Keller's great epiphany has been reenacted countless times in motion pictures, plays, and dramatizations.
Helen describes it best in her autobiography, The Story of My Life: "We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten--a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away."
And sweep them away she did. With Anne Sullivan by her side, in time, Keller would learn to speak, read Braille, and write. The public was fascinated by Helen Keller's story decades before The Miracle Worker visualized the iconic scenes associated with her life. However, some newspapers published exaggerated accounts of Helen Keller and her exploits. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, remembered as "the Miracle Worker" for her teaching accomplishments and lifetime dedication to Helen Keller, once commented on these press fabrications in a letter. "Nearly every mail brings some absurd statement, printed or written. The truth is not wonderful enough to suit the newspapers; so they enlarge upon it and invent ridiculous embellishments. One paper has Helen demonstrating problems in geometry by means of her playing blocks."
At the age of 11, Helen sent the Director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind, Michael Anagnos, The Frost King, a short story she had written. She had an ongoing correspondence with Anagnos since her days as a student at Perkins. He was so impressed with the story that he had it published in a magazine, and publicly praised the work. Unfortunately it turned out to be a retelling of a story by Margaret Canby, The Frost Fairies. She was criticized, accused of plagiarism, and Michael Anagnos broke off contact with her. It turned out much of her story was actually taken from The Frost Fairies, but Keller claimed it was unintentional. Though it cast a shadow over her early years, she later produced many volumes of fresh material, and the incident was largely forgotten by the public.
1902 saw her autobiography, The Story of My Life appear in serialized form in Ladies' Home Journal. The following year it was published in book form, and would be reprinted many times over the years. She dedicated her autobiography to the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, "Who has taught the deaf to speak and enabled the listening ear to hear speech from the Atlantic to the Rockies, I dedicate this Story of My Life." Her other works include Optimism: An Essay (1903), The World I Live In (1908), The Song of the Stone Wall (1910), Out of the Dark: Essays, Letters, and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision (1913), My Religion (1927), Midstream: My Later Life (1929), Peace at Eventide (1932), Helen Keller in Scotland (1933), Helen Keller's Journal (1938), Let Us Have Faith (1940), Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy: A Tribute by the Foster Child of Her Mind (1955), and The Open Door (1957).
Some of the notable firsts in her life include the first deaf-blind individual ever enrolled at a major institution of higher learning. She was the very first deaf-blind individual to receive a bachelor of arts degree, received in 1904 from Radcliffe College. In 1955 Helen Keller became the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Harvard University.
She became a distinguished lecturer, a wildly-successful fundraiser for the American Foundation for the Blind, and was consistently one of the world's most admired women. Keller, along with her teacher Annie Sullivan, traveled the world, met with heads of state, campaigned tirelessly to improve living and working conditions for blind people, and dedicated her entire life to educating the public about disabled members of society.
Her political beliefs and activities proved to be one of the more controversial aspects of her life. She became radically left wing, and in 1909, joined the Socialist Party. She wrote articles in defense of Socialism, lectured for the party, and was a founding member of the ACLU.
Helen Keller had many dogs as companions over the years. Her dogs would usually accompany her on walks or tandem bicycle rides. She owned mastiffs, setters, spaniels, and bull terriers. Helen once wrote, "My dog friends seem to understand my limitations, and always keep close beside me when I am alone. I love their affectionate ways and the eloquent wag of their tails." She is credited with having introduced the Akita breed of dog to America in 1937. This came about as a result of a trip to Japan during her world travels.
In October 1961, Helen suffered the first of a series of strokes, and retired from public life. Though she was unable to attend the ceremony, September 14th, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Helen Keller the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. She was to spend the remainder of her life being cared for at her home, Arcan Ridge, in Easton, near Westport, Connecticut.
Helen Keller's life story was told in William Gibson's play The Miracle Worker, which was later made into a film. The 1962 Arthur Penn film version starred Anne Bancroft, as Annie Sullivan, and Patty Duke, as Helen Keller. They both won Academy Awards for their work in the motion picture. The Miracle Worker was remade in 1979 as a TV-movie starring Patty Duke, this time playing Annie Sullivan, and Melissa Gilbert as Helen Keller. It was remade again as a TV-movie in 2000, and starred Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Alison Elliott, David Strathairn, and Lucas Black.