Anne Sullivan Macy
Helen Keller's "Teacher"
Anne Mansfield Sullivan was an American
educator who is best known as the successful teacher and faithful
companion of Helen Keller. Besides this, she championed the cause
of the blind and did much to promote the American Foundation for
the blind. Anne was born in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts to Thomas
and Alice Cloesy Sullivan. Alice Sullivan died of tuberculosis,
leaving eight year old Annie at home with her mean-tempered father.
The two other surviving children of the Sullivan household were
taken in by relatives. Eventually, Annie was taken from her father
and transferred to Tewksbury, the state poorhouse.
Anne had contracted trachoma at an early
age and her sight continued to weaken throughout her youth. When
she was in Tewksbury, a group from the State Board of Charities
visited the poorhouse and they met Anne. She asked to go to school
and on October 7, 1880 she entered Perkins School for the Blind.
Anne had a hard time at school, constantly trying to overcome
her past. She tended to be arrogant and defiant, attitudes born
of shame and feeling of social inferiority. Gradually several
teachers took an interest in her and began to cultivate her sharp
mind and as they tried to understand the reasoning behind her
hostilities and sharp tongue. After several operations her vision
was improved. With the improvement of her vision along with the
encouragement of these dedicated teachers, her learning progressed
at a rapid pace. Soon she was given the task of acting as a guide
for other children.
One of Annie’s most useful accomplishments
at Perkins was learning the manual alphabet. She did this in order
to talk to Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind child to be educated
in the United States, who had been taught the manual alphabet
in order to communicate. This skill was to serve her well in later
years. Annie graduated from high school as valedictorian from
Perkins in 1886.
When Michael Anagnos, the director of
Perkins, was looking for a teacher to send to work with Helen
Keller, a young deaf-blind girl from Alabama, Anne was his choice.
In March, 1887, at the age of 21, Anne Sullivan moved to Tuscumbia,
Alabama to take charge of the young Keller. Helen was to forever
call this day “The most important day of my life”. From that fateful
day, the Anne and Helen were inseparable until Anne’s death in
Within two weeks after her arrival,
Anne, with a mixture of love and discipline, was able to establish
her authority over the undisciplined Helen. Miss Sullivan was
then able to proceed in teaching Helen. She reached Helen’s mind
through the sense of touch, using the manual alphabet to spell
words into the girl’s hand. She began by spelling d-o-l-l into
Helen’s hand, hoping to teach her to connect object with letters.
While Helen quickly learned to make the letters correctly, she
didn’t realize she was spelling a word or that words existed.
Therefore, she learned to spell many words in an uncomprehending
But soon after they began, Helen discovered
the correlation between words and objects. Anne used practical
situations to show her this connection. The first time Helen made
that connection was when “Teacher”, which is what Helen always
called Anne, took her outside to the water pump. Anne started
to draw water and put Helen’s hand under the spout. As the cool
water flowed over one hand, she spelled the word “w-a-t-e-r” manually
into the other hand. Suddenly the signals had meaning in Helen’s
mind. It was here that Helen learned that everything had a name
and that the manual alphabet was the key to everything she wanted
As Helen progressed and became the darling
of the media, Anne’s eyes continued to worsen again. She had several
more operations to preserve her remaining vision, that met with
success. In 1900 Helen entered Radcliffe College with Anne at
her side as interpreter.
For the next 26 years, Anne’s life with
Helen was a whirlwind of activity with travel, lectures, and meetings.
After graduating from Radcliffe, Helen began writing “The Story
of My Life. While writing, they were suggested to have John Albert
Macy edit the book. He began to join in typical household events
and he and Anne fell in love and were married in 1905. Anne, Helen,
and John became a family until 1913 when John left Anne to sail
to Europe. By the end of 1914, Anne could see the marriage was
over and she added Polly Thompson to the household as housekeeper
and secretary. Until the end of her life Anne stayed loyal to
John and they never divorced. John Albert Macy died in 1932.
In 1927, Nella Braddy was commissioned
to write Anne’s biography. Annie told Nella of her childhood and
her ordeal at the Tewksbury poorhouse, something she’d kept from
Helen for a long time. This biography of Anne Sullivan Macy was
published in 1933. In 1932, Temple University conferred an honorary
degree on Anne and Helen spoke at the ceremony of how Anne had
led her into the world of the hearing and seeing. Anne was embarrassed
by the praise, but full of pride in her pupil.
On October 20, 1936, at the age of 70,
Anne Sullivan Macy died in Forest Hills, New York. In June of
1960, a fountain was dedicated at Radcliffe College in memory
of Anne. At the dedication Helen said one word, “water”.