The Miracle Worker: Who Was Anne Sullivan?

Anne Sullivan met Helen Keller for the first time on March 3, 1887.
Helen Keller Anne Sullivan Photo

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan at Cape Cod, 1888.

The remarkable story of teacher Anne Sullivan and her student Helen Keller has been told throughout generations. One often cannot say one name without thinking of the other since the two lived and worked together interdependently for decades until Sullivan's death in 1936.

So who was Anne Sullivan before she started her lifelong journey with Keller? We look at her earlier years to see how she became Keller's intrepid teacher. 

Born in Massachusetts in 1866, Anne Sullivan was the oldest of five children, raised by Irish immigrant parents who escaped the Great Famine. At age five, she contracted a bacterial infection in her eye that caused her to lose much of her eyesight. Three years later, her mother died, which prompted her devastated father to send her and her younger brother Jimmie to a poor house.

The conditions at the poor house were awful. Sullivan and her brother were surrounded by men, women and children suffering from mental illness and sickness. Just after three months, Jimmie died from a weak hip and left Sullivan to fend for herself; she suffered from fits of rage and streaks of terror. She would reflect upon her experience at the poor house, saying it left her with "the conviction that life is primarily cruel and bitter."

Anne Sullivan Macy Photo

Anne Sullivan, 1887.

Perhaps her hard childhood was the cause of her rage, but it was that same anger that drove her to succeed in ways that no one could imagine. When she discovered that the poor house had a small library, she persuaded people to read to her. It was there she learned that there were schools for the blind. Her desire to be properly educated was so strong that when a group of inspectors came to the facility to inspect its conditions, she boldly approached one of them and declared she wanted to go to school. That moment changed her life.

In the fall of 1880, Sullivan began attending the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston. At 14, she realized she was grossly behind her peers academically, and it both shamed her, but also fueled her determination to catch up. Rough around the edges and temperamental, Sullivan, at first, turned off her teachers and fellow students, but two years later, life at Perkins became easier. While she had multiple eye surgeries in the past that temporarily improved her vision, one in particular around this time improved her eyesight dramatically, allowing her to read on her own.

Sullivan became an excellent student and was able to close the academic disparity between her and the other students within a short time. Despite this, she was still a spitfire and hard to deal with. She remained rebellious and sharp-tongued, and had it not been for the teachers who believed in her, she may not have ever graduated. But she not only graduated at the age of 20, but she also gave the valedictory address, offering this final call to action:

"Fellow-graduates: duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully, and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform it; for every obstacle we overcome, every success we achieve tends to bring man closer to God and make life more as he would have it."

Just months later, Sullivan would find her "especial part." She would meet Helen Keller and change the course of both of their lives.