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8 Things You Didn’t Know About Helen Keller

April 29, 2021

In the early 20th century, Helen Keller was one of the most famous people on the planet. She toured around the world, gave personal experiences, wrote books, and advocated for social change, all despite being without sight or the ability to hear. Here are some little-known facts about Keller.

• Helen Keller was not born without the abilities to see or hear, but at 19 months old was diagnosed with a vague illness affecting the brain and stomach, which medical historians later would pinpoint as either meningitis or scarlet fever. 

• Contrary to popular belief, Helen Keller wasn’t completely unable to communicate with her family before her formal education with Anne Sullivan began when she was about six. She knew about 60 hand signs to inform her family of her wants, needs, and feelings.

• One of Keller’s closest friends was the great American writer and humorist Mark Twain. Keller met Twain when she was 14, and could reportedly tell when he was around before he announced his presence — he smoked 20 cigars a day, so she could smell him coming.

 • In 1904, Keller graduated with Radcliff College, becoming the first deaf and blind person to earn a college degree in the United States. In her junior year, she wrote the bestselling memoir The Story of My Life (and rocketed to fame).

• While a student, learned to communicate by touching lips to interpret words, finger spelling, typing, and Braille. Keller also spoke, but she didn’t like the sound of her voice and Anne Sullivan interpreted her words for others.

• Helen Keller’s political views got her into some controversy and dicey territory. An avowed, open socialist, she wound up on the FBI’s list of suspected American Communists in 1949. She wasn’t a Communist, however, merely an outspoken advocate for economic revolution to help the poor and differently abled, blaming capitalism for a link she saw between disability and poverty. (And she was also a member of the Socialist Party of America).

• When Keller was in her thirties, she lived with Sullivan, separated from her husband, and requiring such extensive care after an illness that she could no longer serve Keller full time. Her replacement: Peter Fagan, a 29-year-old Boston Herald reporter. Keller and Fagan fell in love and planned to marry, only for Keller’s family to force her to end it, worried that a deaf and blind woman would not be able to bear and raise children.

• Keller’s longtime teacher, translator, friend, and companion Anne Sullivan suffered coronary thrombosis in 1936 and died. Keller was by her side, holding her hand as she passed away. When Keller died in her sleep in 1968, her ashes were interred next to Sullivan’s remains.

To learn more about the remarkable life of Helen Keller, check out the latest in our fully illustrated Show Me History line, Helen Keller: Inspiration to Everyone. It’s available now from Portable Press.

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