FW: ANB - Bio of the Day [Anne Sullivan Macy]
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Subject: ANB - Bio of the Day
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American National Biography Online
Macy, Anne Sullivan (14 Apr. 1866-20 Oct. 1936), special educator,
was born Johanna Mansfield Sullivan in Feeding Hills (near Springfield),
Massachusetts, the daughter of Thomas Sullivan and Alice Cloesy,
farmers. She was known throughout her life as Anne or Annie.
Her parents (both immigrants from County Limerick, Ireland) were
illiterate, and her childhood was marred by both poverty and
misfortune. An attack of trachoma around the age of five left
her virtually blind, and she was subjected to frequent beatings
at the hands of her alcoholic father. In 1874 her mother died,
and two years later her father abandoned his three living children.
While her sister Mary was sent to live with relatives, Anne and
her brother Jimmie (crippled from a bout with tuberculosis) were
sent to the state almshouse in Tewksbury, where Jimmie died a
few months later.
Devastated by her brother's death, Sullivan was miserable at
Tewksbury. The facility was filthy, badly overcrowded, and provided
no educational facilities. She learned of the Perkins Institute
for the Blind in Boston, and when a commission headed by state
board of charities chairman Frank Sanborn visited Tewksbury for
an inspection Sullivan literally threw herself at him and cried
out "Mr. Sanborn, I want to go to school!" Arrangements were
made shortly, and she entered Perkins in October 1880. Her childhood
and almshouse experiences left their mark on Sullivan, who never
quite overcame the feelings of shame and inferiority that she
acquired as a result.
Despite her total lack of formal education, Sullivan prospered
at Perkins. She regained some of her sight through an operation
in 1881, and she graduated from the school in 1886 as class
Uncertain as to her future vocation, she learned of a governess
position through Perkins's director (and son-in-law of its founder,
Samuel Gridley Howe), Michael Anagnos. Arthur H. Keller of Tuscumbia,
Alabama, had contacted Anagnos to see if anyone was willing to
attempt to teach his daughter Helen Keller, a seven-year-old
girl who had lost both her sight and hearing at the age of nineteen
months. After studying Howe's notes (who taught Laura Bridgman,
a similarly afflicted girl), Sullivan accepted the position with
some trepidation and arrived in Tuscumbia in March 1887.
Upon her arrival, Sullivan found Helen to be a willful, spoiled,
and moody child. As her behavior was completely uncontrolled,
Sullivan made instruction in obedience her first priority. Realizing
that Helen possessed great intelligence in spite of her isolation,
she attempted to communicate with her through a manual method--"finger
spelling"--in which letters to words were articulated into a
pupil's hand. After weeks of frustration, Sullivan spelled out
the word "water" while pumping water over her pupil's hand. Keller
recognized the connection, and her link to the outside world
was restored. Insatiable for knowledge, she made rapid progress.
The two visited Perkins in the spring of 1888, stopping en route
to meet with inventor and deaf educator Alexander Graham Bell,
who shared the astonishment felt by nearly all who came into
contact with Keller regarding her progress.
Sullivan remained with Keller for the rest of her life. The
pair traveled widely as their fame spread, and they enjoyed the
philanthropy of individuals such as industrialists Andrew Carnegie,
Henry H. Rogers, and John Spaulding. She attended Keller's classes
at Wright-Humason oral speech school in New York City (1894-1896),
the Cambridge (Mass.) School for Young Ladies (1896-1897), and
finally Radcliffe College (1900-1904). Assisting Keller in her
schoolwork exhausted Sullivan, and the resulting overwork proved
disastrous for her already frail eyesight. Sullivan also came
into frequent conflict with school administrators. Fiercely protective
of Keller and resentful of attempts to separate them (a prevalent
rumor was that Sullivan was either "controlling" or "using" Keller),
Sullivan experienced estrangement from both Anagnos and Arthur
Gilman (the head of the Cambridge School). Insecure and often
petulant in behavior, Sullivan also suffered the slights of a
society that (she often felt) fawned over Keller while largely
ignoring or discounting her own contributions to Keller's development.
Following Keller's graduation from Radcliffe, the pair relocated
to farm in Wrentham, Massachusetts. A frequent visitor there
was John Albert Macy, a youthful Harvard instructor who had assisted
the pair in preparing Keller's biography. Despite misgivings
(Sullivan feared the marriage's effect on Keller; Macy was also
eleven years her junior), the two married (with Keller's blessing)
in 1905. Although the three lived together in harmony for a time,
marital strains created a separation by 1912, when John Macy,
an aspiring writer, left to work for the mayor of Schenectady.
No children resulted from the marriage, which was never formally
terminated despite the couple's failure to reconcile.
Anne Macy and Keller moved to Forest Hills, New York, in 1917.
In constant demand as lecturers and as potential fundraisers,
the pair had to balance the public's desire to hear their story
with their own financial constraints. Charitable to a fault,
they were in constant need of supplementing their income. While
a trip to Hollywood in 1918 to produce the movie Deliverance
came to naught--the film flopped--a stint on the vaudeville circuit
(1919-1921) proved more lucrative. Although Macy's failing health
took them off the tour by the latter year, the pair undertook
fundraising tours on behalf of the newly formed American Foundation
for the Blind (1924-1927).
Despite their worldwide fame, Macy's final years were painful.
She hated fundraising and lost an eye through surgery in 1929.
Totally blind at the end, she did not adapt well to her encumbrance.
Nevertheless, long-overdue recognition came her way. Awarded
an honorary doctor of humane letters from Temple University in
1931, she stubbornly refused to accept it until the following
year. She and Keller also became honorary fellows of the Educational
Institute of Scotland (1933) and received medals from the Roosevelt
Memorial Foundation (1936). Vacations in search of health failed
to raise Macy's spirits, and she died at her home in Forest Hills
after a long period of decline.
Although occasionally controversial, "Teacher" (as Keller inevitably
referred to her) achieved remarkable success with her one and
only pupil. Though she possessed only minimal training, her tireless
and creative efforts resulted in the gift of Helen Keller to
the world. If her life apart from Keller was largely unsuccessful,
Anne Sullivan Macy still merits the recognition that she was
so often denied in life.
Anne Sullivan Macy's papers are held at the Perkins Institute
for the Blind, Watertown, Mass.; the American Antiquarian Society
in Worcester, Mass.; and the Volta Bureau in Washington, D.C.
Scholarship on Macy includes Joseph P. Lash, Helen and Teacher:
The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy (1980), which
is often critical of Macy. Dated but still useful is Nella Braddy,
Anne Sullivan Macy (1933). Helen Keller, Teacher: Anne Sullivan
Macy (1955), is valuable but marred by Keller's defensiveness
on her subject. An obituary is in the New York Times, 21 Oct. 1936.
Edward L. Lach, Jr.
Back to the top
Edward L. Lach, Jr.. "Macy, Anne Sullivan";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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