Before Helen Keller, There was Laura...

Laura Bridgman was the first deaf-blind person ever to learn language. Born in 1829, a half-century before Helen Keller, she fascinated and awed people by overcoming her disabilities.

The daughter of farmers in Hanover, New Hampshire, Laura contracted scarlet fever at the age of two. It destroyed her hearing, her sight, and most of her sense of smell and taste. She shortly forgot the few words she had learned. By the time she was seven, she didn't even know she had a name.

Laura communicated with a few simple gestures and had been taught to behave and even set the table, thanks to punishing smacks given to her by her parents. But in the early 19th century, the deaf-blind people were classifed as either insane or as "idiots."

In 1837, Samuel Howe, the founder of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, read a doctor's account of Laura and persuaded Laura's parents to bring her to live at the school in Boston. Part of Boston's Unitarian reform movement, Howe believed God provided people with distinct faculties,and that Laura, like everyone else, had an Organ of Language hidden just behind her eyes. He was determined to teach her to communicate through words.

Howe and another teacher, Lydia Drew, made paper labels with raised letters and taught Laura to place these on the appropriate objects. Within three months of coming to Perkins, Laura had learned a hundred nouns and was starting on verbs. After a year, she could communicate in simple sentences and after two years, she was writing letters home. By the time she was twelve, Laura was making up short stories, doing math, and studying geography.

Now, due to Howe's publicity campaign to promote his school, Laura had become an international celebrity. As the growing educated middle-class sought novelty and enlightenment, Laura's "freakish" fame grew and grew. This, and her devotion to Howe, coupled with the onset of puberty and her sometimes demanding and irritable behavior, was the beginning of "real" problems that would follow her forever. When Howe married and left for a honeymoon in Europe, in 1843, Laura's life changed dramatically. Sixteen months later, when Howe returned, Laura was a different girl. For Howe, "the great romance of Laura's rescue from darkness was over," and he turned on Laura, "with a sudden and surprising vehemence." The teachers blamed it on Laura's free will, for her "personality and soul had jumped the track", they had laid down for her. Howe continued to support her financially, but that was the end of it. Soon, a prettier, maybe smarter, deaf-blind girl (Helen Keller) came along and virtually eclipsed Laura in the public's mind.

Laura Bridgman died in 1889, at the age of 59. Fourteen years later, Howe's daughters published a book: Laura Bridgman: Dr. Howe's Famous Pupil and What He Taught Her.
What made Howe's work easier was the unsung work of Laura's mom (who tended towards gentler methods) and a farm hand named Tim, who was considered slightly mentally deficient, but was patient and kind enough to be a playmate to Laura. By using different touches for "yes" and "no", she was able to teach Laura to yes, set the table, but also how to knit, as well as other household tasks; Tim taught her how to gather eggs from the hens (which among other things involved identifying spoiled eggs from their shells and leaving one egg per nest to keep the hens "broody").

Astute observers of Laura as a celebrity found her somewhat creepy. (Though her younger fans, who poked out the eyes of their dolls, were, as always, a close second.) The disease that had deprived her of her sight had, additionally, enucleated her : covering the empty eye sockets with a mask of green ribbon gave her a somewhat eerie appearence. She seldom smiled, and her inability to respond to others' emotional cues was, at times, embarrassing. Moreover, her late acquisition of language stamped her written communications with a peculiar "accent" that her contemporaries found "Latinate" and more recent biographers as "like the communications of an intelligent alien". Most distressing of all was her voice -- unable to speak in the manner we usually think of, she emitted husky growls whenever she felt frustrated, angry, or fractious, a tendency that her handlers tried to discourage as "unladylike" and glossed over to the public as "pet names" for her mentors. So much alarm was caused by her vocalizing that, when a barrier was erected between her and a large crowd of onlookers, Laura was known to have signed "Are the ladies so afraid of me, then?"

This is not to downgrade her achievement, which stand quite well by themselves, but serve to show exactly why Helen Keller is an icon, while Laura Bridgman is a footnote: Helen, when all was said and done, was cuter.

Bridgman, Laura, an American blind mute, born in Hanover, N.H., Dec. 21, 1829. At two years of age both sight and hearing were entirely destroyed by fever. In 1839, Dr. Howe, of Boston, undertook her care and education at the deaf and dumb school. The first attempt was to give her a knowledge of arbitrary signs, by which she could interchange thoughts with others. Then she learned to read embossed letters by touch; next, embossed words were attached to different articles, and she learned to associate each with its corresponding object. Her touch grew in accuracy as its power increased; she learned to know people almost instantly by their touch alone. In a year or two more she was able to receive lessons in geography, algebra, and history. She learned to write a fair, legible, square hand, and to read with great dexterity, and at last even to think deeply, and to reason with discrimination. She died May 4, 1889.

Entry from Everybody's Cyclopedia, 1912.

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