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On This Day: Helen Keller Comprehends the Word “Water”

Last updated: February 13, 2023

On April 5, 1887, teacher Anne Sullivan taught her blind and deaf pupil, Helen Keller, the meaning of the word “water” as spelled out in the manual alphabet.

Helen Keller’s Breakthrough

Helen Keller’s world fell dark and silent when she was just 19 months old, when an unknown disease left her deaf and blind. She became an unruly child who often lashed out in anger at her inability to communicate and her failure to comprehend the world around her. When Helen tipped over her sister’s crib one day, her parents knew they needed to find help.

With the assistance of Alexander Graham Bell, the Kellers were able to engage Anne Sullivan, a teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, to tutor their daughter at their Alabama plantation. Sullivan helped Helen gain self-control and then began teaching her using a technique first employed by Perkins tutor Samuel Gridley Howe to teach deaf-blind girl Laura Bridgman to read.

Sullivan spelled words into Helen’s hand and tried to help the girl connect letters and words with objects’ names. At first, Helen thought her teacher was just playing a game. Helen memorized words but failed to understand that they did, in fact, have meaning.

It wasn’t until April 5, 1887, when Anne took Helen to an old pump house, that Helen finally understood that everything has a name. Sullivan put Helen’s hand under the stream and began spelling “w-a-t-e-r” into her palm, first slowly, then more quickly.

Keller later wrote in her autobiography, “As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”

Sullivan described the event in a letter to the matron of the Perkins School: “The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face.”

Keller began asking what the words for other objects were, and learned dozens of new words in the following days. From that breakthrough moment, Helen’s world continued to expand. She learned to read, write and even speak.

Read Helen Keller’s most famous work, the autobiographical “The Story of My Life,” written while she ewas in college and released as a book in 1903. It also features letters written by Sullivan as she tutored Keller.

Biographies: Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Sources in this Story

  • American Foundation for the Blind: Helen Keller Biography
  • Perkins School for the Blind History Museum: Anne Sullivan
  • Encyclopedia Britannica: Helen Keller
  • The New York Times: Helen Keller, 87, Dies: Triumph Out of Tragedy
  • American Printing House for the Blind: Anne Sullivan Macy
  • The New York Times: Mrs. Macy Is Dead; Aided Miss Keller

Helen Keller
In 1888, Keller traveled to Boston to attend Perkins, where she learned Braille and studied many subjects. In 1890, she moved to the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston, where her new tutor, Sarah Fuller, taught her to understand words by placing her hands on the speaker’s face.

In 1890, she was accepted to Radcliffe College, where she graduated with honors. After her schooling was complete, Keller became a prolific writer and public speaker. She campaigned for the rights of the disabled, and also took strong and often controversial stances on political and social issues. She supported the women’s suffrage movement, spoke out against U.S. involvement in World War I, and was a devoted socialist.

When she died in 1968, Helen left an inspirational legacy for blind and deaf individuals. Many organizations, including the American Foundation for the Blind, honor her today.

Anne Sullivan
Anne Sullivan, born in 1866 in Massachusetts, suffered from the eye disease trachoma, which left her nearly blind as a child. Her parents were poor Irish immigrants; her mother died when she was young and her father, an alcoholic, abandoned her and her brother, leaving them in a poorhouse.

In 1880, she convinced an inspector at the poorhouse to allow her to enroll at the Perkins School, where she was taught to read and write. She became close with Laura Bridgman, who taught her the manual alphabet. She received surgery to correct her vision and went on to graduate as the class valedictorian in 1886, after which she became a tutor at the school.

Sullivan remained close friends with Keller for her entire life. The two lived together for many years along with Sullivan’s husband, John Macy. Sullivan accompanied Keller to many of her speeches and other public appearances.

Her health and her eyesight deteriorated in her old age, and she went completely blind in 1935. A year later, at age 70, she died of a heart ailment as Keller stood by her bedside.

Watch a 1930 newsreel of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan discussing how Helen was taught to speak.

Reference: Photographs of Helen Keller

Helen met numerous famous individuals during her life, including Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain, and presidents Calvin Coolidge and John F. Kennedy. Photographs of her and her acquaintances are available at the Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education. 

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