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The Daily Need

Photo: A ‘miracle worker’ is born

An 8-year-old Helen Keller sits with her teacher Anne Sullivan. Photo: Thaxter P. Spencer Collection, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, New England Historic Genealogical Society-Boston

On this day in 1866, Anne Sullivan, the teacher who helped educate Helen Keller, was born in Feeding Hills, Mass. When Keller was 19-months old, she became very ill, possibly with meningitis or scarlet fever; the brief illness left her blind and deaf with limited ability to communicate with others.

Sullivan began teaching Keller by spelling words into her palm. Initially, the finger-spelling technique meant nothing to the frustrated pupil until  the ingenious teacher spelled the word “water” into one of Helen’s palms while running water over her other hand:  It was then that Keller understood the concept of sign language and its relationship to the objects around her. Sullivan went on to be known as the “miracle worker,” a moniker coined by Mark Twain.

As a result of Sullivan’s teachings, Keller eventually learned to read, write and speak. She went on to graduate from college, become a public speaker, pen 12 books and mature into an advocate for racial and sexual equality and the Socialist party. She met every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson, and has even been credited with introducing the Akita, a Japanese dog breed, to the United States, thanks to the two dogs she received as gifts from the Japanese government in the 1930s.

Sullivan passed away in 1936, and Keller died at the age of 87 in June 1968. Their ashes currently rest together at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

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