Howe, Samuel Gridley

views updated May 29 2018


Samuel Gridley Howe (18011876) was a key figure during the nineteenth century in helping disabled people lead productive, dignified lives. Howe was a physician by profession and worked primarily with people who were blind or otherwise disabled. His activism spread to broad segments of the population. Through his efforts he demonstrated that people with a variety of physical and emotional disorders could become economically and socially functional. The disabled, his claimed, did not need to be abandoned or shut away in institutions.

Samuel Howe was born in Boston in 1801 to middle class parents. In 1824 he obtained a medical degree from Harvard University at age twenty-three. He then went to Greece and became involved in that country's war against Turkey. He spent five years in Greece as a surgeon and likely developed his ideas about disabilities during this time.

When he returned to Massachusetts Howe opened a new school for the blind. He aggressively pursued a philosophy of "overcoming obstacles" when it came to teaching the blind. This may have been based on his observations of how the disabled in Greece functioned during a time of war. He inspired educators of his time with the articles and reports he wrote about the disabled. His writing was filled with educational theories, positive principles of human psychology, and a good dose of hope.

Howe soon became the leading spokesperson for the needs of and the possibilities for the disabled in the United States during the nineteenth century. He increasingly asserted through his work and his writings that the disabled should be treated with confidence rather than pity. He developed a system of raised-print writing which was used by the blind to read until the simpler Braille method was invented by Louis Braille (180952).

Howe joined a variety of reform movements. He advocated better public schools, as well as enlightened treatment of the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled. He worked to reform prisons and end the institution of slavery.

Throughout his life Howe opened and organized schools designed to integrate disabled students into society. At the beginning of the twentieth century the trend in the United States was against isolating the blind and other disabled persons in institutions. A new social tendency arose to provide for the disabled a way to participate fully in everyday life.

At one point in his life Howe ran unsuccessfully for Congress as an antislavery candidate. He was among the most active of the New Englanders who worked to keep the state of Kansas from permitting slavery. He supported John Brown's (18001859) raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. During both the American Civil War (18611865) and the Reconstruction era (18651877) Howe served on national commissions and agencies concerned with providing aid for freed slaves.

Howe died on January 9, 1876 at the age of seventy-five. His wife carried on his fight for the rights of slaves and the disabled. Julia Ward Howe also wrote the words for the famous "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Howe is regarded as the father of the modern Disability Rights Movement (DRM). The movement advocates that people with disabilities be treated with appropriate techniques and education, allowing them to become active in the routine work and business of their communities.

Howe helped create an understanding that the blind, the deaf, and others with disabilities were not mentally or otherwise inferior. Howe's vigorous reform efforts at first focused on the blind, and later expanded to include former convicts, African slaves, the emotionally impaired, and the developmentally disabled. All of his efforts eventually focused on the fundamental humanity of all people. Howe championed the right of all people to be treated equally as their abilities allowed, and not their disabilities. He was among the first to aggressively confront U.S. society with the motto: "Obstacles are things to be overcome."

See also: Americans with Disabilities Act


Meltzer, Milton. A Light in the Dark: The Life of Samuel Gridley Howe. New York: Crowell, 1964.

Pelka, Fred. The ABC-CLIO Companion to the Disability Rights Movement. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1997.

Schwartz, Harold. Samuel Gridley Howe: Social Reformer, 18011876. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956.

Shapiro, Joseph P. No Pity: People With Disabilities Forming a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Times Books, 1993.

Solinger, Richie, ed. Abortion Wars. Berkley: University of California Press, 1998.

obstacles are things to be overcome.

samuel gridley howe

Samuel Gridley Howe

views updated May 17 2018

Samuel Gridley Howe

Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876), American physician and reformer, was a pioneer in educating the blind and a militant abolitionist.

Samuel Gridley Howe was born in Boston on Nov. 10, 1801. After studying at Brown, he received his medical degree from Harvard in 1824. He then set out for Greece to participate in the War for Independence against the Turks. He gave valorous service there, both as a soldier and surgeon, and stayed for 6 years, distributing American relief shipments and assisting Greek efforts to repair and improve the nation.

On a brief trip back to America, Howe published Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution (1828). When he returned home again in 1831, he was hired by the state of Massachusetts to start a school for the blind. By 1832 he had opened a school in his home with six pupils. He got financial help from private philanthropists as well as from states surrounding Massachusetts.

By April 1833 Howe had established in Boston the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind. He taught that the blind should be treated with confidence rather than pity. He developed new and simpler devices for instructing blind children and innovated in finding inexpensive ways to print in raised letters. Howe himself authored textbooks on grammar, spelling, and geography. His annual reports on the work of the institution influenced other states to follow his example. His success with Laura Bridgeman, who was both blind and deaf, helped prove that persons with such challenges were not mentally inferior.

Howe joined many other reform movements. He advocated better public schools, better treatment of the insane, and reforms in the prisons. He was chairman of a group of Bostonians who opposed the Fugitive Slave Law by arming themselves to protect African American fugitives. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress as an antislavery candidate and was among those zealous New Englanders who worked to keep Kansas from permitting slavery and supported John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. During the Civil War and Reconstruction he served on national commissions and various agencies concerned with the conduct of the war and aid to freed slaves.

In 1843 Howe had married Julia Ward, who, during the Civil War, wrote the words for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Howe died on Jan. 9, 1876.

Further Reading

For a reliable scholarly biography of Howe see Harold Schwartz, Samuel Gridley Howe: Social Reformer, 1801-1876 (1956). A more colorful story is Louise Hall Tharp, Three Saints and a Sinner: Julia Ward Howe, Louisa, Annie, and Sam Ward (1956), which tells of Julia Ward Howe's family. James M. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality (1964), is both scholarly and spirited in its interpretation of the abolitionist movement during the Civil War and Reconstruction. □

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