#98: Helen Keller

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helen kellerHelen Keller was born in 1880 in Alabama. When she was 19 months old, Helen fell ill with what likely scarlet fever or meningitis. She survived her illness, but was left both deaf and blind by it.

As she grew older, Helen became very hard for her parents to handle. She often threw tantrums, broke things, and screamed. Relatives thought she should be institutionalized. Helen's parents disagreed, and took her to Alexander Graham Bell, a local expert on deaf children. Bell put them in touch with the director of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, who in turn sent teach Anne Sullivan to work with Helen.

Anne taught Helen for several years, and Helen then attended the Perkins Institute. In 1900, Helen enrolled in Radcliffe College. She was the first deaf-blind person to ever go to college in the United States. Anne went with her and assisted her. While in college, Helen began to write about her life, and in 1903 she published her autobiography, "The Story of My Life." In 1904, Helen graduated.

In 1905, Anne married John Macy, the editor of Helen's first book. Helen lived with John and Anne in Massachusetts. Helen continued to write, and also, through John, became active in the Massachusetts Socialist Party. In 1913, Helen published "Out of the Dark," a series of essays on Socialism.

In the years after the publication of her Socialist work, Helen traveled and lectured extensively, always with Anne by her side. By 1918, though, Helen's lecturing had morphed from serious talks to a vaudeville type show, which was financially lucrative. Helen toured not only to support herself, but also to raise awareness and funds for the American Foundation for the Blind. In 1922, Anne became ill and was unable to travel with Helen anymore, and another woman, Polly Thompson, took her place.

In 1936, Anne died. Helen and Polly moved to Connecticut.

After World War II, Helen and Polly traveled extensively raising money for the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind. Helen also continued to work towards racial and sexual equality. She supported the Industrial Workers of the World, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Margaret Sanger's efforts to legalize birth control.

In 1953, an Academy Award winning documentary, "Unconquered," was made about Helen's life. In 1955, Helen published a book about Anne Sullivan, "Teacher." In 1959, the play "The Miracle Worker," about Helen and Anne, debuted on Broadway, and in 1962 it was made into another Oscar winning film.

Helen suffered her first stroke in 1961. For the rest of her life, she remained mostly in her home in Connecticut, with few public appearances. She died in 1968. She published 11 books, was the subject of three films and a play, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame.

Helen Keller Services for the Blind
National Women's Hall of Fame


Also the subject of hundreds of delightful jokes.

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