Helen Keller and Washington, DC
Helen Keller was the first deaf-blind person ever to earn a bachelor’s degree. Her story is one of challenge and triumph—and a little bit of our nation’s capital.
Helen Keller was born June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama.
It might have been meningitis or scarlet fever that left her deaf and blind. Whatever it was, at 19 months, Helen Keller would neither see nor hear as long as she lived.
Her parents, desperate for a way to help their daughter communicate, took her to their physician, who recommended them to Alexander Graham Bell, world-famous inventor of the telephone, in Washington, DC.
Alexander Graham Bell
Bell made further recommendations and the Kellers ultimately found Anne Sullivan, the “miracle worker” who achieved a famous breakthrough with Helen in communicating “water” to her at a pump.
Bell had received his patent for the telephone in 1876 and had been thus awarded 50,000 francs (more than $250,000 in 2017) by the French government for winning their Volta Prize. With the proceeds, Bell started performing experiments in Washington, eventually paying special attention to understanding the causes of deafness and ways to help the deaf. Within one year of meeting Helen Keller, Bell established the Volta Bureau “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf” (compare with the mission of the Smithsonian: “…an institution for the creation and diffusion of knowledge.”)
By 1893, the Volta Bureau‘s work was great enough to warrant its own building. Helen Keller, by that year a child prodigy with Anne Sullivan’s help, participated in the sod-breaking ceremony in Georgetown.
Early design of the Volta Bureau Building Courtesy Library of Congress
This Greek revival temple, unique in the area, is inspired by the oldest temples in Greece. It’s worth checking out if you’re in Georgetown and want to get away from the noise of M Street!
Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller spent nearly 50 years together as the latter became an author, political activist, and lecturer, and the first deaf-blind person ever to earn a bachelor of arts degree, and later, she was the first woman to be awarded an honorary degree from Harvard University.
Helen Keller in 1899 with Anne Sullivan. Photo taken by Alexander Graham Bell at his School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech.
Helen Keller is remembered in a significant way in the United States Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection. Congress allows each state to send two statues to this collection in honor of figures important to its history. To go along with such names as George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, and King Kamehameha I, Alabama sent a bronze statue of a young Helen Keller, depicting her in that transformative moment at the water pump when she discovered she could understand the world:
Statuary Hall is not the only place in the District of Columbia to honor Helen Keller: Washington National Cathedral (sanctuary pictured below), a Grand Atlas favorite, is the final resting place of some 200 individuals, including the only president buried in DC: Woodrow Wilson. Sharing the Cathedral crypt with Wilson are Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, together as they were for nearly 50 years of their lives.
In the crypt, one can find this plaque:
“Believe, when you are most unhappy, that there is something for you to do in the world. So long as you can sweeten another’s pain, life is not in vain.” — Helen Keller