by Elizabeth Fiorite
Laura Bridgman was the most famous woman of her day, second only to Queen Victoria, according to her teacher, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston. The reason for this renown? Laura was the first deaf and blind person to learn to communicate with others through language.
Laura was born in 1829 in the small farming community of Hanover, N.H. When she was two years old, she became totally deaf and blind, and later, after a severe bout with scarlet fever, also lost her senses of taste and smell. She was seven years old when she entered the Perkins Institution, where Dr. Howe personally supervised her many years of education.
Howe, a famed educational reformer, philanthropist, and, later, senator, carefully recorded Laura’s progress and published annual reports for the board of trustees for the Perkins School. These reports were widely circulated in educational journals and newspapers across the United States and Europe. Within a few years, people thronged to the school’s auditorium to see Laura read, write, and talk, using the manual alphabet, and to buy Laura’s autograph or samples of her sewing or knitting.
Howe set out to prove that human nature was intrinsically good, and became evil when outside influences corrupted it. He carefully monitored the information Laura received, believing that he could mold a person with a pure nature.
Howe did not condone physical punishment for any of his students, but Laura spent hours, even days, in isolation for such minor infractions as fighting with the other blind girls, spitting out her food, or having temper outbursts. To the girl who was so dependent on others for information which she insatiably sought, the denial of social contacts and emotional support seems exceptionally cruel. Laura, however, seemed remorseful, and often affirmed her trust and love for her teachers.
As Laura matured and made choices that conflicted with Howe’s principles, he began to have second thoughts about his ability to mold another’s personality and character. The educational techniques he pioneered and provided, had, in fact, given Laura the opportunity to learn language and skills that enabled her to socialize and communicate with others, an opportunity previously denied to people who were deaf and blind.
Half a century after Laura entered the Perkins Institution for the Blind, a teacher who trained there, Annie Sullivan, used the knowledge she acquired to teach her student, Helen Keller. In a matter of weeks, Helen learned what had taken Laura, through trial and error, months to master.
As a young girl, Helen met the older, reserved Miss Bridgman. In her youthful exuberance in attempting to kiss Laura, Helen stepped on her toes. Laura chided the child, an event Helen recounted in later years. Laura, living a regimented and sheltered life according to her own strict moral code, which placed a priority on cleanliness and order, had little understanding of this lively child. The differences in the personalities of the reclusive Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller, who went out to the world and embraced causes not limited to blindness, could have given Howe another lifetime’s worth of research.
A case could be made that each woman had been exploited, for career or political gain, but the fact remains that their personal lives were enriched, regardless of the motives of their promoters, and without Laura Bridgman, there would not have been the Helen Keller we know today.
A detailed account of Dr. Howe’s career, Laura’s experiences at the Perkins Institution, and the social climate of the time can be found in “The Education of Laura Bridgman” by Ernest Freeberg, DB051875.
A fictionalized novel of this remarkable woman’s life has just been published, entitled “What is Visible?” by Kimberly Elkins, and will soon be available from the Talking Book Library, DB078666.