Helen Keller became deaf and blind at 19 months old. She was famous from the age of 8 for her experience of overcoming great obstacles in order to learn to communicate. This early part of her life is the most well-known, but the story doesn’t end there. Helen would go on to become not only well educated, but famous in her own right as an author and activist. She has even been said to be one of the 20th century's leading humanitarians and was named one of the most important people of the 20th century by Life magazine.
Here are 12 facts you probably don’t know about Helen Keller.
#1 Her famous life story was based on the autobiography she wrote.
Helen Keller’s early life was made famous through the well-known story The Miracle Worker, which was made into a Broadway play (1959-1961; 1994; 2010), television drama (1957; 1979; 2000), and film (1962). It was even adapted for Spanish (TVE, 1978) and Italian (RAI, 1968) television.
The Miracle Worker tells the story of Keller’s breakthrough in understanding the connection between words, language, and the world around her. Many people don’t realize The Miracle Worker story is based on Keller’s first book, the autobiography “The Story of My Life,” which was published in 1903 when she was just 24 and went on to become a renowned classic, translated into 50 languages.
#2 She thought of herself as an author first.
Although she accomplished many things, Keller saw herself as a writer first – her passport listed her profession as "author."
She used both a braille and regular typewriter - she used a braille typewriter to prepare her manuscripts and then copied them on a regular typewriter.
She published fourteen books, many articles and essays, and was a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers. The Helen Keller Archives contain over 475 speeches and essays that she wrote on topics such as faith, blindness prevention, birth control, the rise of fascism in Europe, and atomic energy.
#3 She was an Oscar winner and her life inspired two Oscar-winning movies.
Helen Keller won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1956 for the story of her life Helen Keller in Her Story (also known as The Unconquered). She accepted the Academy Award at the age of 75. Keller is the only person to win an Academy Award for appearing in a documentary about her life and also have someone else win an Oscar for portraying her in another movie about her life.
The Miracle Worker story won many awards. The 1962 film won Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Patty Duke, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, is the only actress to win an Oscar for a role in which only one word is said (she says, “Water!” in the famous scene in the movie when Keller understands that what she is touching at the pump is called water). The original 1959 The Miracle Worker play ran for 719 performances and won the 1960 Tony Award for Best Play, in addition to Best Direction, Best Stage Technician, and Best Actress.
#4 She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that an American civilian can receive.
In addition to Oscars and Tonys being awarded for adaptations to her life story The Miracle Worker, Helen Keller received many awards during her lifetime. She received the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal in 1936 and in 1964 was awarded the highest honor that an American civilian can receive, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She later received Brazilian Order of the Southern Cross (1952), the Philippines' Golden Heart, the French Legion of Honor (1952) and Japan's Sacred Treasure. She was elected to the Women's Hall of Fame at the New York World’s Fair in 1965, the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973. A U.S. Stamp with a picture of Keller and Sullivan was issued in 1980. Other countries have issued stamps with her image as well, including Spain, India, Liberia, Nicaragua, Republic of Maldives, Mauritius, Brazil, and Japan.
#5 She was well-educated and the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Helen Keller graduated cum laude from Radcliffe College (Harvard’s Women’s College) in 1904 at the age of 24. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She also learned to read French, German, Greek, and Latin in braille!
In June 1955, Helen was the first woman to be awarded an honorary degree from Harvard University. She also received honorary degrees from Temple University in Pennsylvania, Glasgow University in Scotland; Delhi University in India; Berlin University in Germany; and Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa.
#6 She performed on the Vaudeville circuit as a speaker.
Keller was offered a chance to join Vaudeville as a teenager (Vaudeville is a genre of entertainment featuring specialty acts and the Vaudeville circuit included many venues across the U.S.), but turned down the opportunity because her family and her teacher Anne Sullivan didn’t think it was a good idea. Keller eventually convinced Sullivan. Keller performed on the Vaudeville circuit from 1920 to 1924 as a lecturer with Anne Sullivan.
The public was intrigued by Keller and wanted to see for themselves if she could do all of the things she was credited for – most deaf-blind people during this time were institutionalized and assumed to be “retarded,” rumors also circulated that Keller plagiarized, that her books were written by ghost authors, and that her teacher Anne Sullivan and her husband used Keller to spread their own views. Keller wanted the opportunity to re-tell her story the way she wanted it told, to be an advocate, and to educate others on the struggles of the deaf-blind.
Keller was billed as “The Star of Happiness” and her show was a success. The audience was surprised to hear her speak and the most popular part of the show was the Q & A at the end, where Keller got to showcase her quick wit and push her political views. When asked if talking tires her, Keller responded, “Did you ever hear a woman who tired of talking?”
#7 She was a world traveler and visited a total of 39 countries across 5 continents.
Helen was a world traveler and visited a total of 39 countries across 5 continents. She was an activist for both the American Federation for the Blind and Helen Keller International (which she helped to found), and spent much of her later years traveling around the world, raising money and awareness for the blind and other social issues.
She didn’t slow down. In 1955, when she was 75 years old, she embarked on one of her longest and most grueling journeys - a 40,000-mile, five-month-long tour through Asia.
#8 She was a dog lover and was the first to bring the Japanese Akita dog breed to America.
She loved dogs and had dogs throughout her life.
She introduced the Japanese Akita breed to America after receiving her first Akita dog, which was a gift from police officer Ichiro Ogasawara during one of her trips to Japan.
#9 She had a love affair with one of her assistants.
An interesting story that is not included in many biographies about Helen Keller is she had a love affair in 1916 at the age of 36. Anne Sullivan and Keller worked closely together and lived together, however, Sullivan was away seeking treatment and recuperating from tuberculosis. Peter Fagan, a 29-year-old Boston Herald reporter, became Keller’s secretary during this time and they fell in love. However, 1916 society, including Keller’s family and Sullivan, didn’t think women with disabilities should get married or have normal romantic desires. Fagan and Keller had taken out a marriage license and had planned to elope. They tried twice to run off together, but were stopped by Keller’s family and teachers. The third time, Keller waited on the dark porch with her packed bag, but Fagan never showed up. Some of Fagan’s family say the family legend is that Fagan was threatened by the Keller family and he retreated because he feared for his life. They also say Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan was jealous of anyone else getting close to Keller and insisted the relationship end.
#10 She was a dignitary with many famous friends.
Helen became a celebrity among celebrities and she met a number of influential and famous people.
Among her friends were author Mark Twain and inventor Alexander Graham Bell. She made quite an impact on Mark Twain. They met at a lunch held for her in New York in 1895. He was so impressed with her that he encouraged his benefactor to fund her education, which he did. The financial support allowed her to pursue a college education, becoming the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Twain once said, "The two greatest characters in the 19th century are Napoleon and Helen Keller. Napoleon tried to conquer the world by physical force and failed. Helen tried to conquer the world by power of mind — and succeeded!” Perhaps inspired by Keller, one of Twain’s famous quotes is, “Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear, and the blind can see.”
Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, helped connect her family to the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where they found Anne Sullivan and where Helen later attend school for a few years. She dedicated her first book, The Story of My Life to him, “To ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL who has taught the deaf to speak and enabled the listening ear to hear speech from the Atlantic to the Rockies, I dedicate this Story of My Life."
She met 12 U.S. presidents - every U.S president from Grover Cleveland to John F. Kennedy. She also met leaders of other countries, including the Queen of England, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir, and Japanese Emperor Hirohito.
Additionally she met many famous people, including Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Eleanor Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Charlie Chaplin, Katharine Cornell, Jo Davidson, Martha Graham, Enrico Caruso, and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes.
#11 She was a political activist with strong political views, which were considered radical.
Keller said, “So long as you can sweeten another’s pain, life is not in vain.” She lived by that mantra and is remembered as a social activist who fought for the rights of others. What many don’t know is that she had strong political views, which were considered radical for the time.
She wrote socialist pieces and was such a controversial author that the FBI did surveillance on her, and the Nazis burned a collection of her political essays in 1933. Media that once supported Keller lashed out at her for her socialist beliefs. She remarked on the change of attitude from one editor, “At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error.”
Causes she advocated for included:
- She was a suffragette who advocated for women’s right to vote and access to birth control.
- She was a pacifist and protested the U.S. involvement in World War I.
- She was an early supporter and donor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), fighting particularly for the rights of blind African Americans.
- She joined the Socialist Party and fought for workers' rights.
- She co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920.
- She helped to found Helen Keller International in 1915.
- In 1921, Helen joined the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and worked for the organization for over 40 years.
- She testified before Congress, strongly advocating to improve the welfare of blind people.
- In 1925, Keller addressed the Lions Club at their International Convention in Cedar Point, Ohio. She challenged Lions to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.” Since then, the Lions have worked to aid the blind and visually impaired. They have helped millions of people worldwide and continue to have sight programs designed to prevent blindness, restore eyesight and improve eye health and eye care.
#12 Helen Keller Day is celebrated on her birthday – June 27th.
Helen Keller’s June 27th birthday is commemorated as Helen Keller Day.
Helen Keller Days have been proclaimed by the mayors of Newark, New Jersey, Annapolis, Maryland, and is recognized annually in the state of Pennsylvania and Alabama. Helen Keller Day was authorized at the federal level by presidential proclamation by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, for the 100th anniversary of her birth.
Her birthplace, a plantation called Ivy Green in Tuscumbia, Alabama, is now a museum and the City of Tuscumbia hosts an annual Helen Keller Festival the last week of June.
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Even if you’ve watched The Miracle Worker a handful of times, you probably still have a sizable gap in knowledge about Helen Keller’s life. As history’s most famous deaf-blind person, she was an inspiring author and activist, but she was also a vaudeville performer, a close friend of Mark Twain, and a world traveler investigated by the FBI for her political views. In honor of her birthday, here are 10 things you might not know about Helen Keller.
1. HER DAD WAS A CAPTAIN IN THE CONFEDERATE ARMY.
Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama on June 27, 1880. Her father, Arthur Keller, had worked as a lawyer in Alabama before enlisting in the Confederate Army. During the Civil War, he served as a private, quartermaster-sergeant, and paymaster. After the war, he bought and became editor of The North Alabamian, a weekly local newspaper.
2. SHE WAS GOOD FRIENDS WITH MARK TWAIN…
In 1895, as a teenager, Keller met Mark Twain at a lunch in New York. Later, she wrote that he “treated me not as a freak, but as a handicapped woman seeking a way to circumvent extraordinary difficulties.” Twain had a daughter the same age as Keller, and eventually the two bonded over their political views and mutual admiration for each other. She recognized the author by his scent, as he often reeked of tobacco. Twain convinced the industrialist Henry Huttleston Rogers to help pay for Keller’s education, and Twain was also the first person to call Anne Sullivan, Keller’s teacher and companion, a miracle worker. Twain even gave Keller a blurb for her 1903 autobiography, which she wrote at age 22.
3. …AS WELL AS ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL.
Keller with Anne Sullivan in 1888, at age 8. Wikimedia Commons
When Keller was 6 years old, her parents took her to Julian John Chisolm, Professor of Diseases of the Eye and Ear at the University of Maryland, a renowned physician who recommended that she see Alexander Graham Bell. Because Bell’s wife was deaf, the inventor founded schools for the deaf (as well as their teachers) and was involved with teaching deaf children. Due to Bell’s suggestion, Keller’s parents enrolled her at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, through which she met Sullivan. Bell mentored Sullivan and was friends with both her and Keller until his death in 1922.
4. SHE FELL IN LOVE WITH HER (MALE) SECRETARY.
In 1916, at 36 years old, she fell in love with Peter Fagan, a former newspaper reporter in his late twenties. Fagan was working as Keller's temporary secretary while Sullivan was sick. The couple secretly got engaged and even took out a marriage license before Keller’s family found out and forbade the marriage due to her disabilities. She regretted that she never married, reportedly remarking, “If I could see, I would marry first of all.”
5. SHE WAS A MEMBER OF THE SOCIALIST PARTY.
Keller focused a big part of her life on politics. She belonged to the Socialist Party, helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and was investigated by the FBI thanks to her far-left views. She also supported industrial workers’ rights, women’s suffrage, and birth control, and she wrote essays about her socialist views and admiration of Vladimir Lenin.
6. SHE WAS A VAUDEVILLIAN "EIGHTH WONDER OF THE WORLD."
Keller and Sullivan were well known, but they weren't earning enough income from Keller’s writing and lectures. So for four years in the 1920s, they hit the vaudeville circuit. Keller would speak about her life, Sullivan would translate, and audiences could ask questions as part of a Q&A. They traveled from town to town, and Keller was billed as “the brightest star of happiness and optimism” and “the eighth wonder of the world.”
7. HER IMAGE (WITH BRAILLE) IS ON OUR CURRENCY.
Keller’s image is on the Alabama state quarter (part of the 50 state quarters program). She appears as an old woman sitting in a rocking chair, holding a book (Keller died at age 87 in 1968). Introduced in March 2003, the words “Helen Keller” are on the quarter in the Latin alphabet and in braille.
8. SHE TRAVELED THE WORLD TO ADVOCATE FOR THE DISABLED.
Keller was a major globetrotter. Traveling to 39 countries from the UK to Japan to Syria, she met with presidents, prime ministers, and other government leaders to advocate for educating blind, deaf, and disabled people. In 1952, during her visit to the Middle East, she gave lectures at medical schools, visited schools for the disabled, and met with organizations that helped the blind.
She wrote about her experiences in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, emphasizing the kindness of the locals and the majesty of the places. As she wrote: “It was more wonderful than I had dreamed for us to travel through semi-legendary lands… I could still feel something of the old picturesqueness, the poetry, the oriental atmosphere and the spirit of prophecy, and I was fascinated by the power of the Moslem religion.”
9. SHE INTRODUCED THE AKITA DOG TO THE U.S.
Archives New Zealand via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
In the 1930s, Keller toured Japan to give speeches and visit schools, and was met with incredible warmth and reverence. A Japanese police officer gave her an Akita dog named Kamikaze-Go as a present, and she fell in love with him. After the dog's death shortly after her return to the States, Japan’s government gifted another Akita from the same litter to Keller, making her the first person to bring the dog breed to the U.S. In 1948, a few years after World War II ended, Keller visited Japan again to inspire the war's disabled veterans in military hospitals.
10. HER LIFE STORY GOT THE BOLLYWOOD TREATMENT.
Released in 2005, the Bollywood film Black is about a young deaf-blind girl named Michelle, her relationship with her teacher, and how she deals with her inability to hear and see. Inspired by Keller’s life, Black’s director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, read her autobiography and visited The Helen Keller Institute for the Deaf and Blind before writing and directing the film. It premiered at Cannes, and won both lead actors Indian Filmfare awards.