“People seldom see the halting and painful steps by which the most insignificant success is achieved.”
Anne Sullivan Macy (1866-1936) was a woman whose brilliance, passion, and tenacity enabled her to overcome a traumatic past. She became a model for others disadvantaged by their physical bodies, as well as by gender or class.
Anne was a pioneer in the field of education. Her work with Helen Keller became the blueprint for education of children who were blind, deaf-blind, or visually impaired that still continues today. Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) dubbed her a "miracle worker." However, Anne's personal story remains relatively unknown. Although some of her letters still exist, it is primarily through the eyes of others that we know her. Some time after she married John Albert Macy in 1905, the young wife burned her private journals for fear of what her husband might think of her if he should read them. Similarly, she did not want her correspondence to be kept after her death. But for historical purposes, materials were retained and the Helen Keller Archives at the American Foundation for the Blind contain some of her letters, prose, and verse. Other materials about Anne are located at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts and the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.
This web site wishes to show Anne Sullivan Macy through her own words as well as through the eyes of others as the remarkable woman whose life and teaching philosophy remain an inspiration to those who educate children who are visually impaired. In 2003, Anne Sullivan Macy was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and the American Foundation for the Blind was privileged to receive a medal in her honor.
Anne Sullivan was the eldest daughter of poor, illiterate, and unskilled Irish immigrants. She was born in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts on April 14, 1866.
Anne was raised in extreme poverty. She was the eldest of five children, only two of whom reached adulthood. Her father, Thomas Sullivan, was an alcoholic and her mother, Alice Chloesy Sullivan, died from tuberculosis when Anne was 9 years old.
When Anne was 7 years old she developed trachoma, a bacterial infection of the eyes. This infection went untreated and affected her vision. She had almost no usable sight until she had an operation at the age of 15, which restored some of her vision, but she remained visually impaired for the rest of her life.
Sullivan's family situation became extremely difficult after the death of her mother in January 1874. At first, Anne's siblings, Mary and Jimmie, were sent to live with their uncle, and Anne remained with her father. During this time, Thomas Sullivan shared stories with Anne about Irish folklore and railed against the injustice of Irish landlords and the British.
This portion of her childhood ended on February 22, 1876, when Jimmie and Anne were sent to the Tewksbury Almshouse, an institution that housed poor and needy people. Anne was just 10 years old at the time.
Their sister Mary was sent to live with an aunt. Jimmie died three months later in the Almshouse, and it appears that Anne never saw Mary again.
In August of 1886, Michael Anagnos, Director of the Perkins School for the Blind, asked his star pupil, Anne, if she was interested in working for the Keller family in Tuscumbia, Alabama. He told her that their six-year-old daughter, Helen, had been deaf and blind since the age of 19 months because of a severe illness.
Since that time the baby had grown into a wild and increasingly uncontrollable child. The parents, Kate and Arthur Keller, had contacted the famous inventor and educator of the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell in Washington, D.C. for help. He, in turn, had put them in touch with the Perkins School for the Blind.
The 21-year-old Anne Sullivan came to Tuscumbia, Alabama on March 3, 1887. From the moment she arrived she began to sign words into Helen's hand, trying to help her understand the idea that everything has a name.
This period of Helen Keller's life is best known to people because of the film The Miracle Worker. The film correctly depicted Helen as an unruly, spoiled, but very bright child who tyrannized the household with her temper tantrums.
Anne saw the need to discipline, but not crush, the spirit of her young charge. As a result, within a week of her arrival, Anne had gained permission to remove Helen from the main house and live alone with her in the nearby cottage where she could teach Helen obedience.
Anne's work with Helen is documented in her correspondence with Sophia Hopkins, a wealthy New Englander who had taken a motherly interest in Anne when she was a pupil at Perkins. Anne wrote the following to Hopkins:
As I began to teach her, I was beset by many difficulties. She wouldn't yield a point without contesting it to the bitter end. I couldn't coax her or compromise with her. To get her to do the simplest thing, such as combing her hair or washing her hands or buttoning her boots, it was necessary to use force, and, of course, a distressing scene followed...I saw clearly that it was useless to try to teach her language or anything else until she learned to obey me. I have thought about it a great deal, and the more I think, the more certain I am that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge, yes, and love, too, enter the mind of the child.
One month later, on April 5, 1887, she succeeded in communicating the meaning of words. That night, for the first time, Helen climbed into bed with Anne, who later said "I thought my heart would burst, it was so full of joy." Anne wrote the following to her friend in Boston:
In a previous letter I think I wrote you that "mug" and "milk" had given Helen more trouble than all the rest. She confused the nouns with the verb "drink." She didn't know the word for "drink," but went through the pantomime of drinking whenever she spelled "mug" or "milk." This morning, while she was washing, she wanted to know the name for "water." When she wants to know the name of anything, she points to it and pats my hand. I spelled "w-a-t-e-r" and thought no more about it until after breakfast. Then it occurred to me that with the help of this new word I might succeed in straightening out the "milk-mug" difficulty. We went out to the pump-house, and I made Helen hold her mug under the spout while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled "w-a-t-e-r" in Helen's free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face.
After Helen's breakthrough in understanding the meaning of words, she moved ahead with amazing speed. Within three weeks, she had learned more than 100 words. Anne taught her as one would teach a young child. "I shall assume that she has the normal child's capacity of assimilation and imitation. I shall use complete sentences in talking to her." Anne took all she had learned at Perkins about teaching a deaf-blind child and adapted her knowledge to produce a more natural way of teaching. Many of Helen's lessons were outdoors. Anne realized that this deaf-blind child could learn much using her three remaining senses of touch, smell, and taste:
It is wonderful how words generate ideas! Every new word Helen learns seems to carry with it the necessity for many more. Her mind grows through its ceaseless activity.
Anne's success with Helen was astonishing. She described her progress with Helen in letters to Michael Anagnos, the Director of the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. He then published these in the school's Annual Reports.
Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone and teacher of the deaf, who had referred Helen's parents to the Perkins School, also played a role in Anne's and Helen's life. He made the public aware of their results when he gave a New York newspaper a picture of Helen and one of her letters to him.
In May 1888, Anne, Helen, and Helen's mother Kate Adams Keller, traveled to Washington, D.C. There they met President Grover Cleveland and were joined by Dr. Bell. They went on to Boston as guests of Mr. Anagnos. It was he who persuaded Helen's father, Arthur Keller, to let Helen study at Perkins in the fall as a guest of the school.
Sophisticated Bostonians were eager to meet Helen and her extraordinary teacher. Already, however, people's interest was focused on Helen rather than Anne. Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) gave Anne the credit she was due, when he called her a "miracle-worker."