Before Helen Keller There Was Laura Bridgman

Laura Bridgman c. 1855 by Southworth & Hawes (source)

Laura Bridgman c. 1855 by Southworth & Hawes (source)

Fifty years before Helen Keller, Laura Bridgman, born Dec 21, 1829, was the first deaf and blind American child to receive a formal English-language education. She became famous in her youth, especially after a visit by Charles Dickens to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston where she was educated. After reading about her in Dickens’ book “American Notes”, Kate Keller sought advice from the school which prompted the hiring of Anne Sullivan as a teacher for her daughter Helen.

Laura was a delicate child who suffered from convulsions as an infant, then when she was two years old, she contracted scarlet fever. The fever left her blind, deaf, and without a sense of smell or taste. After recovering her health, but not her sight or hearing, she received little attention from the family with the exception of her mother who kept her well-groomed and taught her basic household tasks. A happy note in her childhood was her friendship with Asa Tenney, a hired man, who, inspired by Native American sign language, began to teach her to express herself through signs before she was sent away to school.

When she was 8 years old, she came to the attention of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, director of the Perkins school. He took her into his home, where he lived with his sister, and taught her to use raised letters and numbers as well as the manual alphabet. As she learned, she became famous through demonstrations given to the public.

Beginning in 1841, Laura suffered a series of emotional losses beginning when Lydia Drew, her first teacher, left the school to marry. In 1843, Howe married Julia Ward, who found it unpleasant to be around those she considered “defective”, so although she had a home at the school for life it was no longer in the home of Howe. In 1845, her second teacher, Mary Swift left to marry and Laura developed anorexia with her weight dropping from 113 to 79 pounds. Although Swift was replaced by an excellent teacher, Sarah Wight, Laura had become very emotionally demanding and short-tempered, characteristics which were undesirable in an adult and which Wight felt needed discipline. In spite of this, they developed a close relationship which lasted for 5 years until Wight also married.

When Wight left, Sarah’s formal education ended and she returned to her family home in New Hampshire. For consolation, she turned to prayer and meditation and eventually accepted her family’s Baptist religion. Although she enjoyed reuniting with her family and Asa Tenney, she was homesick for the school. When Howe learned that her health was deteriorating, he sent for her to return to the school. There she lived a quiet life writing letters, reading the Bible, and making crocheted and embroidered items which she sold for a little money. She also patiently helped the young blind students with their sewing.

Before Howe’s death in 1876, he made arrangements for Laura to be financially secure at the school for the rest of her life. Although largely forgotten by the public, she lived quietly and died at the Perkins school on May 24, 1889.

Find out what else happened on December 21 in Women’s History.

4 thoughts on “Before Helen Keller There Was Laura Bridgman

  1. I read a lot about Helen Keller when I was at primary school, when I think I was fascinated because I couldn’t imagine how you could live without sight and sound. Still can’t. The children’s biographies I borrowed from the library didn’t mention her political activism, which I only learned about that as an adult and I admire her even more for it. I don’t remember reading about Laura before, so thanks for the info. It doesn’t sound as though she coped quite as well, or maybe she just wasn’t lucky enough to have the right teacher. I’m surprised at Howe wanting to marry someone with those views on “defectives'”!

    • I agree completely about Helen Keller. I admire her very much for her accomplishments as an adult, which I didn’t learn about until I was an adult either. I think her childhood story made a much more dramatic telling than Laura’s, which may explain why we had never heard of Laura. Of course, we never know how someone’s life could have been different under different circumstances, but I imagine the fact that Anne Sullivan was Helen’s life-long companion did help her. About Howe, I agree with you and I must confess that this gives me a different view of Julia Ward Howe as well. I’ll have to do some more research on her.

      I’m planning on doing the A to Z challenge this April. I haven’t decided whether to do it here or on the main blog. Still looking for a Q though and hoping I don’t have to resort to Queen ___! 🙂

Leave a Reply