Helen Keller was born in June 1880 in Tuscumbia, northwest Alabama. Afflicted at the age of 19 months with an unknown illness (possibly scarlet fever or meningitis) that left her blind and deaf, Keller went on to achieve many remarkable feats, publishing 14 books and becoming world-renowned as a keen activist for a range of causes.
Today, Keller is best remembered as a someone who overcame personal adversity to become one of the 20th century’s leading humanitarian advocates. Here, the team behind Whirlpool, a new historical drama-short about Keller which won the Inspiration Award at The AHRC Research in Film Awards 2017, shares nine facts about the activist and author…
Keller was the first deafblind college graduate
During a time when women were scarce in colleges and universities, Keller graduated from Harvard University’s girl’s college, Radcliffe College, in 1904. She was the first deafblind person in the world to graduate from college.
Helen Keller, pictured wearing her mortarboard and graduation grown, as a recent graduate from Radcliffe College. (Bettman/Getty)
She was an activist and prolific author
Advocating for civil rights throughout her life, Keller published 14 books, 500 articles, held speaking tours in over 35 countries on civil rights, and impacted over 50 policies. This included making Braille the US official writing system for the blind.
She supported civil liberty movements
In 1916, Keller donated $100 to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), as well as being quoted in the association’s newspaper The Crisis. Helen was living in Alabama at the time, and according to experts of the era, she and her family were at risk of hate crimes, including lynchings, which were commonplace in that area and period for supporters of the movement.
In 1920, Keller co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with nine other founding members. The ACLU remains a leading union addressing civil liberties in America today.
She was a presence among presidents
Keller met with 12 presidents, from Grover Cleveland – when she was 7 years old, just after she learned to communicate – to John F Kennedy, whom she urged to support civil rights activities.
Helen Keller visits President John F Kennedy, c1961. (Corbis via Getty Images)
She was mentored by other greats
Mark Twain said: “Helen Keller is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare and the rest of the immortals… She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today.”
Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and others were friends of Keller and supported her endeavours.
Helen Keller’s teacher Annie Sullivan (centre) with Helen Keller (left) and Mark Twain. (Walter Sanders/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
She was an advocate for birth control
As an advocate for birth control, Keller wrote letters, articles and gave speeches in support of it, as well as aiding the release of those who had been jailed for distributing birth control information, including Emma Goldman, a famous anarchist.
In a letter to a socialist magazine, she wrote: “If Emma Goldman is sent to prison the cause of birth control in New York is dead for years to come. It will be years before there is intelligence enough in Albany to amend the law.”
She was followed by the FBI
Because of the ‘radical’ political stand she held on many issues, the FBI tracked Keller’s relationships and activity for over 30 years.
One entry in the FBI’s vault states: “It was reported that Helen Keller, blind author and educator, was one of a group of individuals sending messages of condolence on the occasion of the funeral of Mother Bloor, well-known Communist Party member on August 14, 1951.”
She had three failed elopements with her boyfriend
At 36 years of age, Helen fell in love with her temporary assistant, Peter Fagan, a newspaper journalist who was seven years her junior. Fagan and Keller took out a marriage licence and tried to elope three separate times.
However, during an era in which eugenics beliefs still existed [the belief that reproduction should be controlled in order to reduce inheritable ‘defects’], coupled with complex relationships and concern that Helen could only be properly cared for by her family, Keller’s family stood in the way of at least one of the failed elopements.
She was an A-lister, Oscar winner, and Vaudeville star
Keller not only starred in a film Deliverance in 1919 about herself, she entertained on Vaudeville for a time in the 1920s. Her A-list celebrity friends included Charlie Chaplin, and many famous directors, writers, composers and actors at the time.
A young Helen Keller. (George Grantham Bain/Conde Nast via Getty Images)
In 1955, Keller accepted an Academy Award at the age of 75 for the documentary film about her life entitled Helen Keller: In Her Story.
Keller’s life would also be dramatised in 1959 play by William Gibson, The Miracle Worker, which portrayed her learnings under teacher and companion Anne Sullivan. The play later won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 and was turned into a film in 1962, which garnered more Oscar glory: Anne Bancroft won Best Actress for her portrayal of Sullivan, while Best Supporting Actress was awarded to Patty Duke as Keller.
Facts gathered from Keller’s writings, and those of experts on Helen Keller, as well as the Helen Keller Archive through the American Foundation for the Blind.
Whirlpool, a historical drama about Helen Keller, has qualified for the 2018 Academy-Award long list in the live action short film category. More information can be found at whirlpoolfilm.com.
This article was first published on History Extra in December 2017