Biography of Helen Keller

Deaf and Blind Advocate and Role Model

Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, 1897
Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, 1897. PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Helen Keller was a lecturer, writer, and reformer known for her advocacy for the deaf and blind community, of which she was a part. 

Helen Keller was born on June 27th, 1880. Her father was a publisher and businessman who had served in the Confederate Army in the Civil War, and her mother was Kate Adams.  She was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

Before she was 2 years old, Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing after a high fever, possibly scarlet fever.

She was often frustrated and the family spoiled her considerably, though she was unable to communicate. Eventually contacted for help in teaching their daughter, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell urged her parents to find a teacher from the Perkins Institute for the Blind.

Anne Sullivan was that teacher, and she arrived when Helen was almost seven years old. The next events are well-known: Helen Keller learning to understand language through the combination of water from a pump on one hand and the spelling of "water" with the manual alphabet into her other hand. Helen Keller said later, "That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!"

Helen Keller progressed with language quickly under Anne Sullivan's tutorage. She learned Braille at the Perkins Institution in Boston and learned to speak at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in New York. Helen Keller went on to study at the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf, the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, and Radcliffe College, from which she graduated in 1904 with high honors.

For the rest of her life, Helen Keller worked for improving education for the blind, deaf, and mute. She traveled and lectured extensively, even in vaudeville (1922-24). Anne Sullivan Macy, who married Keller's editor John Albert Macy, remained a companion and support to Keller.  

Keller supported socialism, joining the Socialist Party.

 She also worked for women's rights.  She became a member of the IWW in 1896, a religion considered radical and unconventional.  In 1918, she joined the IWW and supported their labor campaigns. She protested the American entry into World War I. Her radical views led to considerable criticism.

During the period 1909 to 1924 Helen Keller devoted considerable effort to raising money for the American Foundation for the Blind.  She spent most of the later years writing and supporting that foundation.

In 1916, she almost married Peter Fagan, her secretary who was 7 years her junior. They obtained a marriage license, but Helen's mother found out about the engagement through a newspaper account, and pressured Helen to break the engagement.

Helen Keller wrote her autobiography, publishing The Story of My Life (1903) and Midstream: My Later Life (1929) as well as publishing several other books, including The World I Live In (1908), The Practice of Optimism (1903, 1915), My Religion (1927), and Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy: A Tribute by the Foster Child of her Mind (1955). 

Anne Sullivan Macy died in 1936, ending a long relationship. Helen Keller survived Anne Sullivan Macy by more than thirty years.

In 1953, a documentary on her life, The Unconquered, was released; it won an Academy Award.  William Gibson wrote a drama for television based on her life in 1957; this served as the basis for a 1959 play, The Miracle Worker, and then the 1962 film of the same name with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, both of whom won Oscars for their performances.

Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968, in Connecticut, where she had made her home. Helen Keller is buried at Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Legacy:

  • March 24, 2003: a coin with Helen Keller's image was issued by the U.S. Mint.
  • October 9, 2009: a statue of Helen Keller was unveiled, one of two statues representing the state of Alabama in the U.S. Capitol's collection: Helen Keller

Selected Helen Keller Quotes

  • Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature.
  • When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.
  • One cannot consent to creep when one has an impulse to soar.
  • The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen, nor touched ... but are felt in the heart.
  • When indeed shall we learn that we are all related one to the other, that we are all members of one body?
  • Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.
  • I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.
  • I seldom think of my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times; but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers.
  • What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.
  • When we do the best that we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another.
  • Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.
  • Be of good cheer. Do not think of today's failures, but of the success that may come tomorrow. You have set yourself a difficult task, but you will succeed if you persevere; and you will find a joy in overcoming obstacles.
  • Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.
  • Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope or confidence.
  • Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.
  • Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.
  • To keep our faces toward change, and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate, is strength undefeatable.
  • Knowledge is love and light and vision.
  • As selfishness and complaint pervert the mind, so love with its joy clears and sharpens the vision.
  • No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.
  • We can do anything we want to if we stick to it long enough.
  • While they were saying among themselves it cannot be done, it was done.
  • Life is an exciting business, and most exciting when it is lived for others.
  • It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.
  • It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennui.
  • Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all -- the apathy of human beings.
  • It is hard to interest those who have everything in those who have nothing.
  • Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other's welfare, social justice can never be attained.
  • I have often been asked, "Do not people bore you?" I do not understand quite what that means. I suppose the calls of the stupid and curious, especially of newspaper reporters, are always inopportune. I also dislike people who try to talk down to my understanding. They are like people who when walking with you try to shorten their steps to suit yours; the hypocrisy in both cases is equally exasperating.
  • It gives me a deep comforting sense that "things seen are temporal and things unseen are eternal."
  • Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.
  • I sometimes wonder if the hand is not more sensitive to the beauties of sculpture than the eye. I should think the wonderful rhythmical flow of lines and curves could be more subtly felt than seen. Be this as it may, I know that I can feel the heart-throbs of the ancient Greeks in their marble gods and goddesses.
  • The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important, than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus--the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.
  • Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding line, and no way of knowing how near the harbor was. "Light! Give me light!" was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.
  • A child must feel the flush of victory and the heart-sinking of disappointment before he takes with a will to the tasks distasteful to him and resolves to dance his way through a dull routine of textbooks.
  • College isn't the place to go for ideas.
  • Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.
  • The highest result of education is tolerance.
  • We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joys in the world.
  • Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.
  • I do not want the peace that passeth understanding. I want the understanding which bringeth peace.
  • It is not possible for civilization to flow backward while there is youth in the world. Youth may be headstrong, but it will advance its allotted length.
  • What a blind person needs is not a teacher but another self.
  • It is for us to pray not for tasks equal to our powers, but for powers equal to our tasks, to go forward with a great desire forever beating at the door of our hearts as we travel toward our distant goal.
  • Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.
  • Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.
  • As the eagle was killed by the arrow winged with his own feather, so the hand of the world is wounded by its own skill.
  • Toleration is the greatest gift of mind, it requires the same effort of the brain that it takes to balance oneself on a bicycle.
  • My share of the work may be limited, but the fact that it is work makes it precious.
  • The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.
  • The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next.
  • Unless we form the habit of going to the Bible in bright moments as well as in trouble, we cannot fully respond to its consolations because we lack equilibrium between light and darkness.
  • There is much in the Bible against which every instinct of my being rebels, so much that I regret the necessity which has compelled me to read it through from beginning to end. I do not think that the knowledge which I have gained of its history and sources compensates me for the unpleasant details it has forced upon my attention.
  • Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there's a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.