Teachers through History: Anne Sullivan

Anne Sullivan (1866 – 1936) is the person responsible for the phrase ‘miracle-worker’. It was coined by Mark Twain, who used it singularly to describe Sullivan’s teaching ability in relation to her most famous student: Helen Keller.

Helen Keller, famous around the world for overcoming her deafness and blindness to become a celebrated author, speaker, and social revolutionary, was at one stage just a confused and curious girl in need of an education.

Sullivan was herself blind, having succumbed to an infectious eye disease at eight, but after a difficult early life had secured an education for herself from Laura Bridgman at the Perkins School for the Blind, Boston. It was Bridgman who Helen Keller’s mother had heard of when she sent a young Helen to Boston.

When Sullivan was only 20, she was introduced to six-year old Helen who had developed her own concept-based signs. Sullivan tried desperately to teach Helen the manual alphabet and the idea that every object had a unique word identifying it. After Anne traced “water” whilst running water over Helen’s hand the penny dropped. After that, the young Helen displayed an insatiable thirst for more words. Deviating from the strict schedule of learning that was encouraged by the Perkins School, Sullivan moulded the syllabus to suite Helen’s interests.

Anne Sullivan continued to nurture her young ward and, after Helen started to become a world-famous symbol for the deaf and blind, Sullivan continued to be her closest friend, confident, and companion.

Anne Sullivan died at the age of 70 with Helen holding her hand. By this point Anne had received honours from the Educational Institute of Scotland, Temple University, and Harvard. Though Helen Keller is the recognised name, it was Anne Sullivan who had the patience, vision, and heart to kindle the brilliance of her student: the ultimate aim of any teacher.

Sullivan’s ashes were interred at the Washington National Cathedral. This was the first time a woman had been honoured in this way, but it was not the last. When Helen Keller died in 1968, she joined her dear friend and teacher. 

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