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Anne Sullivan - the intrepid teacher of Helen Keller

Young Anne Sullivan the incredible teacher of Helen Keller.

Young Anne Sullivan the incredible teacher of Helen Keller.

"Children require guidance and sympathy far more than instruction."

~ Anne Sullivan (www.brainyquote,com)

Anne Sullivan 1866 - 1936

We all know the story of Helen Keller, a pretty baby born to a southern couple, who contracted a severe case of scarlet fever as an infant, and was rendered blind, deaf and mute as a result of the illness.

Anne Sullivan was the incredible teacher who came to teach and help Helen at the age of six. Anne was quite successful in teaching Helen and the two were inseparable for the rest of Anne's life.

But, how did Anne get to become that incredible teacher? It was because Anne could closely identify with Helen, as Anne, too, was partially blind for the better part of her life and totally blind at the end of her life. Anne, like Helen, was an unruly child and difficult to teach, just like Helen was for Anne. These two were the perfect team together and accomplished so much during their lifetimes.

Anne Sullivan was born Johanna Mansfield Sullivan in 1866, in Feeding Hills, Agawam, Massachusetts. She was called Anne or Annie all her life from birth. Her parents were Thomas and Alice (Cloesy) Sullivan, two Irish immigrants who were illiterate and penniless their entire lives.

Anne's mother, Alice, died from tuberculosis m 1874 when Anne was ten. Her father, Thomas, an alcoholic, was unable to cope with taking care of four children; Anne had one brother, Jimmie, and two sisters, Ellen and Mary. Thomas eventually abandoned the family.

At this point, the two oldest, Anne and Jimmie were sent to the Tewksbury Almshouse (the poor house) in Tewksbury , Massachusetts. It is believed the other two girls went to live with relatives.

The almshouse was dirty, rundown and overcrowded and Anne and Jimmie had a difficult adjustment to the unending poverty they experienced there. Anne lived there for four years, but Jimmie died from a tubercular hip shortly after arriving at the almshouse. Anne grew up very lonely for her brother Jimmie as they had always been close.

Anne was illiterate at this time, unruly, outspoken, and rude. She had not had a proper upbringing at home and with so much neglect at the almshouse, she was a wild and impetuous child, quick to anger and with an awful temperament.

At the age of five, Anne had contracted trachoma, an eye disease which was left untreated and she was slowly going blind. Trachoma is a disease of bacteria of the eye and left untreated affected her cornea and she struggled with her sight all her life. Here eyesight was ignored at the poorhouse.

When Anne was the age of fourteen, special commission members arrived at the almshouse to inspect it and at this time Anne, outspoken as she was, told them she wanted to attend school and become educated.

So, in 1880, she was sent by the commission members to the Perkins School for the Blind, located in South Boston. Because of her lack of social graces and her nasty temperament, she had a difficult time adjusting to the school and her classmates. Many of the children who attended there were from very wealthy and well-known families. Here was poverty-stricken Anne who spoke up and spoke her mind whenever she felt like it, and so there were fireworks many times in the classroom.

The teachers at Perkins worked very hard with Anne to improve her behavior and teach her some social graces. When Anne had calmed down and applied herself to her studies, her teachers discovered what an intelligent and gifted student they had on their hands.

With their guidance and direction, Anne thrived and earned excellent academic marks. She began tutoring the younger students and eventually graduated from Perkins at the age of twenty as class valedictorian.

During her time at Perkins, she had several surgeries on her eyes which partially restored her eyesight. She gained partial vision and with the help of glasses was able to see and get around as a person with normal vision.

Upon Anne's graduation, the school's director was approached by a family in Alabama who wanted a governess and teacher for their blind, deaf and mute child named Helen Keller. The director recommended Anne Sullivan for the job, asked her if she would take it and Anne accepted.

"My heart is singing for joy this morning! A miracle has happened! The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil's mind, and behold, all things are changed."

~ Anne Sullivan (

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Helen with her teacher, Anne Sullivan.

Helen with her teacher, Anne Sullivan.

"People seldom see the halting and painful steps by which the most insignificant success is achieved."

~ Anne Sullivan (

A Lifelong Collaboration Begins

Anne, only twenty years old and still with some difficulty seeing, took the train from South Boston to Tuscumbia, Alabama where the Kellers lived in a large plantation house. She had never before been in the south and was stunned to see African-American servants at the plantation as to her the Civil War was far over.

The very first night there, at dinner, headstrong Anne quarreled with Helen's parents about the Civil War and the subject of slavery. Mr. Keller was not bemused and so angry with her he was about to send her back north when Mrs. Keller intervened and begged for Anne to stay. Mr. Keller took his wife's pleas seriously and allowed Anne to stay. So, Anne started off on the wrong foot and the Keller's realized they had a strong-willed teacher for their daughter.

Anne met Helen, six years old, immediately and observed that she was an unruly, bad-mannered and animal-like child. She had never had any discipline from her parents and ran wild. Helen's behavior was not much different from Anne's when Anne was a child.

Anne immediately began communicating with Helen through sign language and showed great maturity and innovation in teaching her pupil. Anne had brought a doll as a present for Helen and signed D-O-L-L into Helen's hand. Helen didn't understand and wasn't having any of this with this new woman present.

First, as her teachers had done with her at Perkins, Anne worked on teaching Helen appropriate behavior and some social graces to her also. For this reason, Anne was probably the perfect and only teacher to be able to handle Helen at this point. Once the behavior was under control, Anne worked on gaining Helen's confidence. Anne was determined and persevered by continually signing the names of objects in Helen's hands.

It took approximately one month before Helen experienced the necessary break-through to learning. Anne was splashing rushing water from the outdoor pump and signing W-A-T-E-R in Helen's hand, when Helen finally made the connection between the signing in her hand stood for the object in her hand.

From that point on, Anne was able to properly communicate with Helen through sign language and Helen, for the first time in her life, was able to learn. Helen drove Anne ragged as she had Anne sign every object she could touch or pick up. Anne found Helen to be a bright, intelligent eager and quick learner, much as Anne had been herself at Perkins school.

From this point on Anne remained as Helen's teacher and when Helen was older as her life companion. They were never separated again until Anne's death at the age of seventy. they continually lived, worked and traveled together.

Helen Keller's autobiography (1905)

Helen Keller's autobiography (1905)

Anne Sullivan Macy in later life.

Anne Sullivan Macy in later life.

"Among the great teachers of all time, she (Anne) occupies a commanding and conspicuous place . . . .The touch of her hand did more than illuminate the pathway of a clouded mind; it literally emancipated a soul."

~ Bishop James E. Freeman, upon Anne Sullivan's death. (wikipedia)

Anne and Helen Embark on the World

Anne continued to teach Helen at the Keller plantation, but by 1888, Anne encouraged Helen's parents to send Helen to the Perkins School for the Blind where she would have an appropriate education learning in all areas and subjects.

So Anne and Helen embarked for South Boston and Anne stayed with Helen and continued to teach her also at the Perkins School. Here, Helen was a remarkable and gifted student, just as Anne had been.

Helen Keller became the poster child for the Perkins School and she brought in funds and donations whenever she attended functions with Anne. The Perkins School became the most famous and sought-after school for the blind in the U.S.

When Helen graduated from the Perkins School, she and Anne moved to New York City so Helen could attend the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf. Here Anne helped Helen to acquire the skills of oral speech, although at times it was difficult to understand Helen because she had been deaf since infancy and had never really heard her voice.

In 1900, Helen Keller began attending Radcliffe College, outside Boston. Anne was by her side during her studies. She signed the contents of lectures into Helen's hand and spent hours conveying information from textbooks to Helen.

Helen Keller became the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college and she graduated from Radcliffe with a B.A. degree with honors.

In 1905, Anne was helping Helen to write her autobiography to be published and met and married John Albert Macy (1877-1932) an instructor and literary critic at Harvard University. He helped Helen to publish her book.

When John and Anne married, he moved in with Anne and Helen and all three lived together. The marriage, however, fell apart after a few years and Macy left the house. He and Anne lived separate lives until their deaths but never formally divorced.

After graduation, Anne traveled with Helen on her lecture tours. She helped Helen in drafting her speeches and sometimes spoke for her as Helen's speech was hard to understand at times.

In later life, Anne and Helen struggled financially and actually toured with a vaudeville theater circuit to earn money to live. On stage, they would share their story of triumph with the fascinated audiences listening.

During these years, Anne's eyesight declined and became quite impaired and by 1935, Anne was completely blind. She died in 1936 in Forest HIlls, Queens, New York, with Helen by her side. Anne was cremated and her ashes were placed in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

When Helen Keller died in 1968, her ashes were placed in the cathedral next to those of Anne's.

Anne Sullivan's work of teaching Helen as a child has been immortalized in the Broadway play and film, The Miracle Worker.

Copyright (c) 2013 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved

Vintage film of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller

  • Anne Sullivan Macy
    Online museum from the American Foundation for the Blind shows Anne Sullivan Macy (1866-1936) through her own words as well as through the eyes of others. It features photographs, letters, a biography, chronology, and recommended reading.
  • Perkins School for the Blind
    Perkins School for the Blind, est. 1829, where Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan were educated, helps people who are blind or deafblind reach their greatest possible independence.
  • Braille Bug
    American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) Braille Bug is a kids' site that teaches sighted children grades 3 through 6 about braille, and encourages literacy among sighted and visually impaired children in a fun environment packed with facts, inform


Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on January 26, 2017:

That's really interesting. I confess to never of heard of her before, but reading your hub has given me an insightful view of this lady. Thankyou.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on March 10, 2014:

VVanNess: Thank you so much for your comments. Yes, I find Anne Sullivan's story just as interesting as Keller's. But, then, I was a teacher during my working years, so I can relate to her teaching methods. I loved them and what a relationship these two women forged as they forged ahead in an area not discovered before them. Thanks again for your visit and comments. Again, so sorry i couldn't get to these sooner.

Victoria Van Ness from Fountain, CO on February 25, 2014:

So we've all heard of Helen Keller, but not many of us know much about her teacher. This was a beautifully informative article. Nice job!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on December 10, 2013:

LKMore: Thank you so much for appreciating my writing. I guess it is a bit of the teacher in me. In the classroom I was always looking for those interesting tidbits to capture my student's attention. I am so glad you enjoyed this and thank you for reading and for your comments. Most appreciated.

LKMore01 on December 09, 2013:


Your HUBs are entertaining, original and educational. The topics you select captures readers and you always include such fascinating details.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 05, 2013:

mckbirdbks: You are so right. I remember reading a biography of Annie Sullivan when I was a child and found her just as interesting as Helen Keller. It is interesting to read about two people who were meant to meet and form a lifelong bond. What an amazing story on both parts. Thanks so much for your interest.

mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on October 04, 2013:

Isn't that always the way? Helen Keller is famous, yet the teacher Anne Sullivan biography is realitively obscure. As usual your present valuable information in an enlightening manner.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 24, 2013:

lesliebyhars: Thank you so much for reading this and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I would love to see the house n Tuscumbia someday. I think Anne Sullivan was as inspirational as Helen was. What the two of them accomplished and the inroads they made to deaf/blind education is wonderful. So many deaf and blind were helped by their example. The indomintable spirit.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 24, 2013:

Thanks you srsddn: So glad you enjoyed reading this and I appreciate your visit. The exhibition you talk about sounds so very interesting and I'm glad you and your daughter were a part of it. I have had blind students in my classroom and they are always so interesting and add so much to the class. Helen Keller is truly an inspiration as to what the human spirit can achieve, and her teacher Anne is as much an inspiration as Helen is. They we quite a pair! Thanks so much for your interest in this area.

lesliebyars on September 23, 2013:


Your hub caught my eye because I am from Florence, AL which is just across the river from Tuscumbia, AL where Helen Keller was born. It is amazing to go on the grounds of the home and take the tour. Anne Sullivan is someone I didn't know anything about. Thank you for bringing her into the forefront more. Voted up and interesting!

Sukhdev Shukla from Dehra Dun, India on September 22, 2013:

suzettenaples, I am extremely grateful to you for posting this. It took me back to an exhibition of aids and appliances for the visually challenged which I organised in a school about two decades back. My daughter, a student at primary level in that school was instrumental in arranging it. All the students of the school took keen interest and visited that exhibition. A colleague of mine delivered a lecture on Helen Keller and White Cane Day as it coincided during that period. But it did not end there. Many months later, I was handed over one magazine, a yearly feature of the school, which was dedicated to Helen Keller virtually. Students wrote poems, stories and articles about blindness and Helen Keller. Our efforts left an indelible impression on young students about blindness and Helen Keller.

I am glad you wrote about the teacher of Helen Keller and it added to my knowledge. The video told much more about the efforts of her teacher and the bond between the two. Thanks once again for sharing all this.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 19, 2013:

RTalloni: THank you so much for your visit and your comments. Most appreciated.

RTalloni on September 19, 2013:

Anne Sullivan's story, along with Helen Keller's, can be inspiring to everyone. Thank you for highlighting their lives here.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 19, 2013:

teaches: Thank you so much for reading this and for your comments. Glad you enjoyed it.

Dianna Mendez on September 19, 2013:

I remember reading the story of Ann Sullivan and how she helped Hellen Keller. It was such a wonderful book. You have brought this out well in your post. I admire both women.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 19, 2013:

thumbi7: Thank you for your visit and for your comments. Glad to hear you enjoyed this.

JR Krishna from India on September 19, 2013:

Nice read. Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller; both names I have heard before. But didn't know much

Thanks for this beautiful hub

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 19, 2013:

LisaMarie: I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. Yes, they were both remarkable women and such an inspiration to us all. Thank you so much for reading this and for your visit.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 19, 2013:

Oh Faith: Thank you so much for your lovely comments and I'm so glad you enjoyed reading this. Anne and Helen were two remarkable women and were able to accomplish so much in their lives. They are an inspiration to us all. I have always enjoyed both of their stories. Your visit is much appreciated, Faith.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 19, 2013:

pstraubie48: Thank you so much for reading this article and I'm glad you enjoyed this. Yes, I think Anne's story is just as inspirational as Helen's. Both overcame great odds to become so successful in life. I appreciate your input on this.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 19, 2013:

Vellur: Thank you so much for your kind and insightful comments. I appreciate your input!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 19, 2013:

Vinaya: I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. I have always been just as interested in Anne's story as much as Helen's. I guess being a teacher I was interested in Anne's approach and teaching of Helen. I have had seeing impaired students in my classes, and they have been so interesting to teach. Most are quite intelligent and gifted and eager to learn. Thanks for your interest in this article and for taking the time to read this.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 19, 2013:

Jackie; I couldn't agree with you more. Both of their stories are amazing. Yes, I believe they were meant to be together also. The dedication on both their parts is heartwarming. I so appreciated your interest in this story. Thank you.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 19, 2013:

vocalcoach: I am so glad you enjoyed this and both of their stories are amazing to me. They both overcame such odds to become a success in life. Just goes to prove the human spirit is indomitable! I appreciate your visit and interest!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 19, 2013:

Nell: Thank you so much and thank you for sharing this on FB. You are so kind. I read about Anne and Helen when I was a child and I have always been interested in their story. As a teacher, I was always interested in Anne's approach and teaching of Helen. I have also had seeing impaired students in my classes and I have had my textbooks and notes typed up in braille for them. Sometimes these students could 'see' better than my seeing students, if you know what I mean! LOL

Lisa Stover from Pittsburgh PA on September 18, 2013:

Nice hub. I enjoyed reading about Anne and Helen, didn't know much about them before reading this. Voted up.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on September 18, 2013:

What an interesting read here. I loved reading about Anne and what a profound role she had in Helen's life no doubt. Thank you for this great piece here.

Up and more and sharing

Blessings, Faith Reaper

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on September 18, 2013:

I knew a bit about Anne, only the bit about her teaching Helen. Knowing all that came before makes her even more of remarkable person.

Thank you for sharing this. Voted up++++ Shared

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on September 18, 2013:

Thank you for writing this hub and introducing me to a great teacher. A great write. Voted up and shared.

Vinaya Ghimire from Nepal on September 17, 2013:

We read about great people but never contemplate about the people who influenced these great minds. Thanks for sharing about Anne Sullivan. I read about Helen Keller when I was a boy, but I'm reading about her teacher in my adulthood.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on September 17, 2013:

Been awhile since I saw the movie but I loved your story of the two and information I was not aware of. There really is not words to describe how amazing the whole thing came together as if it were meant to be. Helen and Anne loved each other so very much in a blind world. I am sure Anne received a good living caring for Helen but by staying with her when there was no money shows her dedication to the girl she changed from a wild animal to become human through sight in her hands. ^

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on September 17, 2013:

I've seen the later film of Helen Keller several times and never tire of it. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this hub. The facts about Anne Sullivan are both heart-breaking and inspiring.

I voted up and across and will share this beautifully written account. ~ Audrey

Nell Rose from England on September 17, 2013:

Hi suzette, that was a fascinating look at Anne Sullivans life, I never knew her name, but actually watched the film a few weeks ago. What an amazing pair of women, the teacher and the pupil, wonderful! voted up and shared! nell

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