Anne Sullivan was a gifted teacher, best known for being an instructor and lifelong companion of Helen Keller (1880—1968), a deaf, blind, and mute child. As a young child Sullivan contracted trachoma, an eye disease caused by bacteria, which left her blind and without reading or writing skills. Overcoming many personal challenges, she received her education as a student of the Perkins School for the Blind. Soon after graduation she became a teacher to Keller and together they dramatically changed the world’s perception of individuals with disabilities.
Born April 14, 1866, in Feeding Hills, Agawam, Massachusetts, Johanna Mansfield Sullivan was the oldest child of illiterate, unskilled, and impoverished immigrants who came to the United States in 1860 from Ireland. Her mother died when she was eight and her father abandoned Sullivan and her siblings shortly thereafter. Sullivan was sent to live at the Tewksbury Almshouse, a home for the poor. In 1880, Sullivan approached a visiting inspector at the home and told him that she wanted to go to school. Later that year, she entered the Perkins School for the Blind. While there, Sullivan developed a friendship with and learned from Laura Bridgman (1829—1889), a graduate of Perkins and the first blind and deaf person to be educated there. Additionally, Sullivan underwent several eye operations that significantly improved her vision. In 1886 she graduated from Perkins as valedictorian of her class. A short time later, Sullivan was recommended to go to Tuscumbia, Alabama, to tutor young Keller.
Over 49 years, Sullivan and Keller’s relationship grew from one of teacher and student to companion and friend. Sullivan began to teach Keller vocabulary, spelling each word out into her palm. Over the course of several months, Keller learned 575 words, some multiplication tables, and the braille system. A well-known accounting details how Sullivan finger-spelled the word “water” on one of Keller’s hands as she ran water over her other hand. This moment was a breakthrough, allowing Keller to connect the concept of sign language with the world and people around her.
In 1888, Sullivan traveled with Keller to Perkins to continue Keller’s education, spelling class lectures into Keller’s hand and spelling out information from textbooks to her. As a result, Keller became the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college.
Sullivan met John A. Macy (1877—1932), a Harvard University instructor, who helped edit Keller’s autobiography. The two married in 1905 and in 1914 they broke up, never officially divorcing.
Despite Anne’s declining health, the women traveled widely, giving lectures, performances, and appearing in the film Deliverance. At the age of 70, Sullivan died on October 20, 1936, at her home in Forest Hills, New York. Her ashes were placed in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.—a distinct honor, as it is also the final resting place of President Woodrow Wilson and other distinguished individuals.
Sullivan’s story continues to inspire through film and theatrical productions. Her work with Keller was showcased in the play The Miracle Worker, which was later turned into the 1962 film starring Patty Duke (1946—2016) as Keller and Anne Bancroft (1931—2005) as Sullivan.
See also: Blindness; Braille; Keller, Helen
Braddy, Nella. (1933). Anne Sullivan Macy: The story behind Helen Keller. New York: Doubleday.
Keller, Helen. (1955). Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy: A tribute by the foster child of her mind. New York: Doubleday.
Perkins School for the Blind. (n.d.). Anne Sullivan. Retrieved from http://www.perkins.org/history/people/anne-sullivan