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In more than 175 years, Perkins School for the Blind has touched the lives of thousands of people, some of them famous. This display focuses on just a few of them.

Photograph. A formal portrait showing a child reading a raised print book with his fingers to three younger students standing at a table, ca. 1900.  Two boys and a girl standing next to science projects:  a plasticene chart of the solar system, a volcano, and dinosaurs and amphibians made of plasticene, ca. 1940.  Anne Sullivan fingerspelling into a young Helen Keller?s hand, ca. 1889.  Young men and boys with brass instruments, ca. 1860.
Photograph. A young woman stands beside a stout older man with white hair and full beard. He is fingerspelling into her hand.

Helen Keller and Alexander Graham Bell, 1901

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Famous People.

Anne Sullivan
Born in 1866 in western Massachusetts, Anne Mansfield Sullivan endured a childhood of deprivation, illness, and abandonment. Because she had been blinded by trachoma contracted at the age of five, she came to Perkins School for the Blind in 1880, and her life took a new course. Arriving as an illiterate 14-year-old, Sullivan graduated six years later at the top of her class.

Her intelligence and determination made her the ideal candidate when Helen Keller?s parents asked the director of Perkins to send a teacher for their 7-year-old daughter. Perkins had been educating students who were deafblind for more than fifty years, and Sullivan studied and used those teaching techniques, adapting and innovating new approaches to challenge the brilliant intellect of her student Helen Keller.

Anne Sullivan is honored throughout the world as a gifted and dedicated teacher. The staff and supporters of Perkins School for the Blind are proud of her legacy and honor it daily through their commitment to education and independence for all students.

Helen Keller
Helen Adams Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama in 1880. At 19 months, she survived an illness that left her deafblind and isolated, cut off from language and communication. When Anne Sullivan arrived to tutor her when she was six, Keller responded with the full force of her remarkable intelligence. She embraced the world with an exuberance that remained unabated throughout her 87 years.

Sullivan brought Helen Keller to Perkins, where she flourished among teachers and students who could communicate with her. Keller was always grateful for the education that brought her to full participation in life, and worked to assure the same benefits and full rights for all people, particularly those with disabilities. Perkins School for the Blind, the pioneer in education of students who are deafblind, today has expanded its commitment globally, serving thousands of children who are deafblind in 50 countries. Helen Keller, citizen of the world and advocate of education, human rights and dignity, would have cause to be proud of the school that she called ?the beginning of everything.?

Henry David Thoreau
Born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau was a philosopher and the author of the classic Walden; or Life in the Woods. In 1841, four years before Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond, he wrote to apply for a teaching position at Perkins. He seemed to have relevant experience, so it is a mystery why he wasn?t hired, especially since his personal references include Ralph Waldo Emerson and Josiah Quincy, president of Harvard College and later mayor of Boston.

Julia Ward Howe
Julia Ward was born in New York in 1819. She married Samuel Gridley Howe in 1843, and together they had six children. Julia Ward Howe is today principally remembered for having written ?The Battle Hymn of the Republic,? but during her lifetime she was renowned as an abolitionist, woman suffragist, essayist, lecturer, and poet whose lecture tours were often sold out. She was instrumental in establishing women?s rights organizations throughout the country, and in 1908 she was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. At her funeral services in 1910, Boston?s Symphony Hall was unable to contain the multitude of mourners.

Sir Francis Joseph Campbell
Born to a Tennessee farming family in 1832, Francis Joseph Campbell was blinded in an accident at the age of four. He excelled as a musician when he later attended the school for the blind in Nashville, and at 16 he became a music teacher there. In 1857 he joined the staff of Perkins and was head of the Music department for 11 years. In 1869, accompanied by his wife Sophia, a former Perkins teacher, Campbell went to Leipzig and Berlin to study music. Passing through London on his return to Boston, Campbell met Thomas Rhodes Armitage in 1871.

Dr. Armitage, a physician who had become blind in his middle years, was dissatisfied with English schools for the blind, which did not give their students the skills to become independent. He dreamed of establishing a school that emphasized music and prepared its students to become organists, piano tuners, and music teachers?in short, a school like Perkins School for the Blind. After Dr. Armitage met Francis Campbell, he wrote, "In the first half-hour's conversation I had with him, I found we had the right man, and he found he had the right cause."

In 1872, with the support of members of the English nobility and donations of ?3000, Dr. Armitage and Campbell established the Royal Normal College and Academy of Music for the Blind in Upper Norwood. Because Perkins teachers were experienced in teaching both rigorous academic coursework and music as preparation for a vocation, Campbell persuaded several to join him in the new venture. Between eighty and ninety percent of the college?s graduates were successful in their musical professions, and the institution enjoyed great public popularity and financial support.

In 1909, Francis Joseph Campbell was knighted by King Edward VII in recognition of his lifetime of service to people who were blind. The Royal National College today continues the work begun by Campbell and Dr. Armitage, preparing students for success in business, counseling, health services and academic pursuits.

Louisa May Alcott
The author Louisa May Alcott was born in 1832 in Germantown, Pennsylvania, but grew up in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts. Although she was taught mainly by her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, she also received instruction and guidance from family friends Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Parker. She wrote her first book at the age of 16, but it was the publication of Little Women in 1868 that brought her great fame. Like her parents, Alcott was a great supporter of social causes, including abolition, temperance, and woman suffrage. Eager to help establish the Kindergarten for the Blind, she wrote a story, ?Blind Lark,? sold it to the children?s magazine St. Nicholas, and donated the $225 fee to the building fund.

Alexander Graham Bell
A brilliant inventor and educator, Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847. His father was the inventor and a teacher of an elocution system called Visible Speech, in which symbols indicated the position of the vocal organs in speech. Bell was an instructor in his father?s school in London and later in Canada, where the family emigrated in 1870. In the early 1870s Bell began teaching Visible Speech to students who were deaf, the beginning of a lifelong interest.

In 1886 the Kellers brought their six-year-old daughter Helen to Alexander Graham Bell, who referred them to Michael Anagnos, director of Perkins School for the Blind. The Kellers asked Anagnos to send a teacher to their Alabama home to instruct their deafblind daughter, and Annie Sullivan arrived in March of 1887.

Helen Keller later wrote of that momentous meeting with Alexander Graham Bell, ? He understood my signs, and I knew and loved him at once. But I did not dream that that interview would be the door through which I should pass from darkness into light, from isolation to friendship, companionship, knowledge, love.? Bell remained a staunch friend of Helen Keller throughout his life.

Suggested citation for scholars:

McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Famous People. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.

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