Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Laura Bridgman, Trailblazer for Hellen Keller

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Hellen Keller became famous as the first deaf and blind person to graduate from college. She went on to become an author and an activist for the rights of disabled people. But someone went before her, marking the beginning of the trail she would follow.

Laura Bridgman was born in New Hampshire in 1829. When she was two, her family was struck with Scarlet Fever. Her two older sisters died, and she was left blind, deaf, and with little sense of taste or smell. As she was two, she had little or no sense of language, so she was also mute.

Her mother taught her to do a few household tasks, such as spinning, sewing, and setting the table. Her father taught her the concept of “no,” by stamping on the floor so she could feel the vibrations when she did something wrong. Their hired hand, Asa Tenney, spent a lot of time with her, showing her the world in the only way she could perceive it, through touch. With him, she bottle-fed lambs, learned that the creek froze over in the winter, and held baby birds. In this way, Laura’s curiosity stayed alive.

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Laura impressed visitors with her ability to help around the house and her desire to learn about her environment. Eventually, her name was mentioned to Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins School for the Blind. Howe had recently met another deaf and blind woman who had been taught to communicate via a few simple signs, and he wondered how much such a child could be taught. A few weeks before her eighth birthday, Laura’s family took her to the school in Boston, and left her there.

Laura was devastated, of course. No one could tell her that this was in fact her greatest (and perhaps only) opportunity. All she knew was that her family was gone, to be replaced by near strangers. Slowly, Howe and his sister Jeanette won over Laura’s affections. They began to teach her.

At first, all the teaching seemed like strange games to Laura. She learned to “read” the raised letters on a tag and match them to a specific object. She learned that the tag marked K-E-Y went with the key and the tag marked S-P-O-O-N went with the spoon. Then she learned to arrange the letters into their proper order if they were given to her on separately. Finally, she learned the manual alphabet. 

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Howe, his sister, and Miss Drew (a woman hired to be Laura’s special teacher,) played these games with Laura for two months, before the magical moment came. Howe would later say that he knew almost the precise moment Laura realized that every item had a name that could be spelled. Laura touched every item around her, asking for its name, and Miss Drew patiently spelled it into her hand. That first night, Miss Drew’s spelling hand ached for hours after Laura went to bed.

Miss Drew gradually introduced other types of words such as verbs and adjectives, and slowly Laura learned to communicate.

Of course, since this was the first time such a task had been undertaken, they didn’t do everything right. They didn’t know the importance of spelling complete sentences to Laura, so her grammar never become correct. She particularly struggled with word order.
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Still, this experiment opened the world to future blind and deaf children. Laura’s progress became a central point in Howe’s annual reports of his institute. These reports were read so widely that when Charles Dickens visited America in 1842, he made it a point to visit Laura, and mentioned her in his book, American Notes. At this point, Laura became famous around the world.

At age 20, Laura returned home to live with her family, but with few people knowing how to communicate with her, she didn’t do well. Her health declined, and Howe created an endowment to ensure that Laura could live out her life at Perkins—though she often spent summers with her family in New Hampshire.

In 1880, Anne Sullivan joined the Perkins School for the Blind. While there, she and Laura became friends. Anne learned the manual alphabet from Laura. She also had medical treatments that greatly improved her eyesight. In 1886, she graduated from Perkins.
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Also in 1886, a desperate mother in Alabama read Charles Dickens’ book, American Notes. There, Mrs. Keller learned that a blind deaf child could be educated. She contacted the Perkins Institute, who recommended Anne Sullivan as a teacher. Anne traveled to Alabama, carrying with her the manual alphabet Laura had taught her and a doll for Helen that Laura had dressed.

Laura died in 1889, too soon to learn just how far young Helen would travel along the path that Laura blazed. But I think she would have been happy to know how well the second round of this experiment went.


Martha Hutchens is a transplanted southerner who lives in Los Alamos, NM where she is surrounded by history so unbelievable it can only be true. She won the 2019 Golden Heart for Romance with Religious and Spiritual Elements. A former analytical chemist and retired homeschool mom, Martha is frequently found working on her latest knitting project when she isn’t writing.

Martha’s current novella is set in southeast Missouri during World War II. It is free to her newsletter subscribers. You can subscribe to my newsletter at my website,

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  1. Very interesting! I am well-versed about Helen Keller but never heard of Laura. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you for your post today. I have always enjoyed articles and stories about Helen Keller, and I love learning more about the beginnings of education for the deaf and blind. But the forced separation from her family was a sad thing for Laura. In hindsight, I wonder if her whole family, or at least one member, could have been taught along with her at the school.

  3. This was very interesting. I also had never heard about Laura. Thanks for your post.

  4. Wow had never heard about Laura. Thanks for sharing about her.