Before Helen Keller, there was Laura Bridgman. Although history did not bestow immortality on her name, as it did Keller’s, there was a time when she was considered to be the most famous woman in the world, with the probable exception of Queen Victoria.
In 1826, three years before Laura’s birth, an American physician and philanthropist visited the National Institute for the Blind in Paris. John Dix Fisher was so impressed with what he saw that he resolved to establish a similar program in New England and was able to get both houses of the Massachusetts legislature to vote unanimously for the incorporation of The New England Asylum for the Blind.
However, his busy practice in Boston and other philanthropic interests did not allow time to run the school himself. He eventually recruited an old college acquaintance, Samuel Gridley Howe, to get the program off the ground and serve as its director.
Howe and Fisher were both graduates of Brown College and Harvard Medical School, although the former’s academic performance had been lackluster and he had no interest in practicing medicine. Howe did, however, appear to have a genuine concern for humanitarian endeavors and clearly a yearning for personal recognition. Fisher’s proposition seemed to offer both.
After an extended tour of Europe, where he criticized most of the schools for the blind that he visited because they did not seem to teach adequate skills for the students to achieve true independence, Fisher returned to Boston in 1832 and opened the New England Asylum for the Blind in his father’s house. The following year, Colonel Thomas H. Perkins, a shipping tycoon, donated a mansion for the institute, which became known as the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind.
Howe did not participate in much of the actual teaching, but did contribute significantly to new techniques for educating the blind. Adopting the method of raised letters, introduced by Valentin Haüy in the previous century, he improved it with thinner paper and a more compact typeface that allowed printing of smaller, cheaper volumes. (Braille was not yet commonly used in America.)
Howe also expressed strong and controversial opposition to the gestural language of Sign, preferring finger spelling with the manual alphabet. In any case, his students progressed dramatically, and he began to promote the school through public exhibitions of his pupils, which led to recognition and funding and the entrée of Howe into Boston’s most exalted intellectual and social circles.
Despite this success, Howe had not been able to accomplish something truly brilliant that would give him the acclaim for which he longed. That opportunity for brilliance and fame, however, soon presented itself in the form of seven-year-old Laura Bridgman.
Born on a farm near Hanover, New Hampshire, Bridgman was for her first two years a normal, healthy child, who was said to be bright and cheerful. Then her family was struck by scarlet fever. It killed her two older sisters and left her blind and deaf, with only limited sense of smell and taste. Within a year she had forgotten how to speak.
Her mother taught her to perform simple tasks in the home, but could offer little more. As she was approaching her eighth birthday, Laura was discovered by a Dartmouth physician, who described her intelligence and gentle demeanor in a medical correspondence.
When Howe read the account, he recognized that this could be the opportunity for which he had been searching. Until then, deaf-blind people had been classified with idiots. This was his chance to dispel that misconception and perform groundbreaking scientific and pedagogical research. And so it was, in October, 1837, that Laura Bridgman arrived at the Perkins Institution.
How does one begin to enter the mind of a person who can neither see nor hear? Samuel Howe deserves credit for developing creative techniques that achieved for the deaf-blind individual what no one had accomplished before.
He began by attaching labels with raised letters to objects for Laura to feel. He then removed the label and allowed her to make the connection between the word and the object. With metal type, she learned to spell words and then phrases. She also began to communicate through finger spelling by forming the manual alphabet in the palm of each other’s hand.
After two years at Perkins, Laura wrote her first letter to her family back in Hanover. She continued to progress at a remarkable rate and, within four years, was not only reading books with raised letters, but was summarizing what she had read, writing her own short stories and developing skills in math and geography.
Howe did not hesitate to inform the public of his accomplishments. In 1840, he used his Ninth Annual Report to describe Laura in such glowing and angelic terms that she literally took the world by storm, making them both famous.
It was a time when sentimental stories of lovable little victims were the favored literary genre, and she was celebrated in countless newspaper and magazine articles and poems. Sightseers flocked to her exhibitions at Perkins, with crowds reaching 1,100 in a day.
Among her many admirers was Charles Dickens, who visited her in 1842 and added to her fame by describing her lovingly in his American Notes. During this time, Laura lived in Howe’s quarters and became emotionally attached to him like a father. But, sadly, all of that was about to change.
In 1843, after a stormy courtship, Howe married Julia Ward, and the couple sailed to Europe for an 18-month honeymoon. When they returned, Laura found that Howe had lost interest in his star pupil and had turned to other concerns, not the least of which was a rocky marriage in which his wife, Julie Ward Howe, eclipsed him in fame with her “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Laura, meanwhile, was now a woman with none of the appeal she had once had as a child. The world soon forgot her. She returned to her family in Hanover, but found no solace there and nearly died from fasting.
When Howe learned of her plight, he brought her back to Perkins and provided a cottage for her, where she spent the remainder of her life in relative obscurity. Her closest link to posterity may have occurred a year before her death, at the age of 59, when Laura received a visit from an eight-year-old girl by the name of Helen Keller. And that will be the subject of a future issue.
Gitter, Elisabeth. The Imprisoned Guest.Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001.
Elkins, Kimberly. What is Visible. Twelve, Hachette Book Group, New York, Boston, 2014.