Home > Article from newspaper, Deaf History > A rare photo of a young Helen Keller with her teacher Anne Sullivan

A rare photo of a young Helen Keller with her teacher Anne Sullivan

March 8, 2008

By MELISSA TRUJILLO, Associated Press Writer

This 1888 photo released by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston shows Helen Keller when she was eight years old, left, holding hands with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, during a summer vacation to Brewster, Mass., on Cape Cod. A staff member at the society discovered the photograph in a large photography collection recently donated to the society. When Sullivan arrived at the Keller household to teach Helen, she gave her a doll as a present. Although Keller had many dolls throughout her childhood, this is believed to be the first known photograph of Helen Keller with one of her dolls. (AP Photo/Courtesy of the Thaxter P. Spencer Collection, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, New England Historic Genealogical Society-Boston)

BOSTON – Researchers have uncovered a rare photograph of a young Helen Keller with her teacher Anne Sullivan, nearly 120 years after it was taken on Cape Cod. The photograph, shot in July 1888 in Brewster, shows an 8-year-old Helen sitting outside in a light-colored dress, holding Sullivan’s hand and cradling one of her beloved dolls.

Experts on Keller’s life believe it could be the earliest photo of the two women together and the only one showing the blind and deaf child with a doll — the first word Sullivan spelled for Keller after they met in 1887 — according to the New England Historic Genealogical Society, which now has the photo.

“It’s really one of the best images I’ve seen in a long, long time,” said Helen Selsdon, an archivist at the American Foundation for the Blind, where Keller worked for more than 40 years. “This is just a huge visual addition to the history of Helen and Annie.”

For more than a century, the photograph has belonged to the family of Thaxter Spencer, an 87-year-old man in Waltham.

Spencer’s mother, Hope Thaxter Parks, often stayed at the Elijah Cobb House on Cape Cod during the summer as a child. In July 1888, she played with Keller, whose family had traveled from Tuscumbia, Ala., to vacation in Massachusetts.

Spencer, who doesn’t know which of his relatives took the picture, told the society that his mother, four years younger than Helen, remembered Helen exploring her face with her hands.

In June, Spencer donated a large collection of photo albums, letters, diaries and other heirlooms to the genealogical society, which preserves artifacts from New England families for future research.

“I never thought much about it,” Spencer said in a statement released by the society. “It just seemed like something no one would find very interesting.” Spencer has recently been hospitalized and could not be reached for comment.

It wasn’t until recently that staff at the society realized the photograph’s significance. Advocates for the blind say they had never heard of it, though after they announced its discovery Wednesday they learned it had published in 1987 in a magazine on Cape Cod and a half-century earlier in The Boston Globe. It is unclear whether there was more than one copy of the photograph.

D. Brenton Simons, the society’s president and CEO, said the photograph offers a glimpse of what was a very important time in Keller’s life.

Sullivan was hired in 1887 to teach Keller, who had been left blind and deaf after an illness at the age of 1 1/2. With her new teacher, Keller learned language from words spelled manually into her hand. Not quite 7, the girl went from an angry, frustrated child without a way to communicate to an eager scholar.

While “doll” was the first word spelled into her hand, Helen finally comprehended the meaning of language a few weeks later with the word “water,” as famously depicted in the film “The Miracle Worker.” Sullivan stayed at her side until her death in 1936, and Keller became a world-famous author and humanitarian. She died in 1968.

Jan Seymour-Ford, a research librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, which both Sullivan and Keller attended, said she was moved to see how deeply connected the women were, even in 1888.

“The way Anne is gazing so intently at Helen, I think it’s a beautiful portrait of the devotion that lasted between these two women all of Anne’s life,” Seymour-Ford said.

Selsdon said the photograph is valuable because it shows many elements of Keller’s childhood: that devotion, Sullivan’s push to teach Helen outdoors and Helen’s attachment to her baby dolls, one of which was given to her upon Sullivan’s arrival as her teacher.

“It’s a beautiful composition,” she said. “It’s not even the individual elements. It’s the fact that it has all of the components.”


  1. Kate
    March 8, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    Wow, she looked so beautiful! Keep up digging everything for us!

  2. March 8, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    This photo is so awesome. It never stops me from finding it so amazing about Helen Keller. I used to teach children ASL and the history of Helen Keller in an active and fun way . I got a video of her as a real person from Lake Arbor Library and showed my class. ~Deb Ann

    (I copied and pasted it from my blog)

  3. Deaf Pixie
    March 8, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    Keller Family must want to get the orginial picture. I don’t know if they have a mususem in Alabamana. Helen is really beautiful child she was ..
    I am goosebumper and saw the picture of NBC. It is really blessing that rare picture. Keller Family might think Helen is special to their ancstory.

  4. Anonymous
    March 17, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    i love the history about Helen Keller and i want to buy a book about her so where can i buy at q

  5. Anonymous
    March 17, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    also want to buy a video about her too

  6. anybody
    February 10, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    we are studieing about helen keller in our class and i think she is really and amazing woman!!!

  7. December 2, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Thank you,
    very interesting article

  8. Anonymous
    February 25, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    I r3ally lov3 h3len Keller she is good teacher

  1. March 8, 2008 at 1:59 pm
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