Bridgman, Laura (1829–1889)
Bridgman, Laura (1829–1889)
First deaf and blind person successfully educated, who paved the way for other disadvantaged people and whose fame spread across America and Europe . Born Laura Dewey Bridgman on December 21, 1829, in Hanover, New Hampshire; died on May 24, 1889, in South Boston, Massachusetts; daughter of Daniel and Harmony Bridgman (both farmers); had two brothers and three sisters, two of whom died from the scarlet fever, which destroyed her senses of sight, hearing, and smell; educated by Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe at the Perkins Institution for the Blind in South Boston, Massachusetts; lived most of her life at the Perkins Institution, in later years helping with the education of blind children; never married; no children.
In 1842, the English novelist Charles Dickens arrived in Boston, the starting point on his long-awaited first visit to the United States. The following morning, his initial stop on this sightseeing tour was a call to the Perkins Institution, the city's school for blind children. Though many distinguished Bostonians waited for a chance to meet the beloved author, Dickens' decision to head immediately to Perkins was not so unusual. In an age when many people were excited by the possibilities of education, the Perkins Institution, America's first school for the blind, had become one of Boston's most popular tourist attractions. Like so many others, Dickens was impressed by what he saw there, the "good order, cleanliness, and comfort" of the classrooms where blind children learned and played cheerfully. But he was most deeply moved by one particular student, Laura Bridgman, a 12-year-old girl who was both deaf and blind.
Though some of Boston's celebrated poets and politicians were vying for Dickens' attention that morning, he ignored them all, transfixed by the sight of Laura sitting quietly in her room, writing a lesson in her journal. He watched with delight as she finished her assignment, then turned to a teacher sitting nearby and began an "animated conversation," pressing the letters of a finger alphabet into her teacher's outstretched palm and "hearing" replies the same way. "There she was, before me," Dickens recalled, "built up, as it were, in a marble cell, impervious to any ray of light, or particle of sound; with her poor white hand peeping through a chink in the wall, beckoning to some good man for help, that an Immortal soul might be awakened."
A "good man" had come to Laura's aid five years earlier. He was Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, a liberal reformer from Boston who was the first director of the Perkins Institution. (He was also the husband of Julia Ward Howe .) In 1837, when Laura was seven, Samuel Howe brought her to the school to see if he could teach her the use of the manual alphabet of the deaf. Until that time, those philosophers and teachers who speculated on the plight of the deaf and blind usually concluded that such people could never be educated. Most felt that a person in Laura's condition was destined to remain beyond the reach of human communication and companionship. Some even speculated that deaf and blind people must be "blank" inside, without a soul or a mind, since they lacked the contact with the outside world, which psychologists of the time said that the brain needs in order to form ideas.
But Howe, aided by Laura's intelligence and curiosity, proved them wrong, demonstrating that such people could learn language and be educated. The story of their accomplishment spread quickly and was hailed by many writers as "a tale of thrilling interest, not surpassed by those of the novelist." Translated into all the major European languages, recounted hundreds
of times in popular magazines, scientific journals, and children's books, Bridgman's story became familiar to thousands of readers in the mid-19th century. A decade after Laura Bridgman had signed her first words, Howe claimed that this humble young girl was one of the most famous women of her day, second only to Queen Victoria .
Laura was born a normal and healthy child, the third daughter of Daniel and Harmony Bridgman , farmers in the New Hampshire village of Hanover. She was two years old, just starting to speak a few words, when she was stricken by scarlet fever. The illness, which killed Laura's two older sisters, brought her to the brink of death, as she struggled against a high fever and a raging infection, which spread to her eyes and ears. Two weeks later, the doctor informed Harmony Bridgman that her youngest child would live, but that her eyes and ears had been "spoilt" forever.
Laura spent most of the next two years in bed, too weak to leave the cradle that her mother rocked for long hours. At the age of four, her health recovered. With her senses of sight and hearing completely gone and her sense of taste and smell also largely destroyed, the child began the difficult process of orienting herself in her new world of silent darkness. Using her fingers as "feelers," she was soon able to find her way around the Bridgman farmhouse. Eagerly imitating her mother, she even learned to help with some household chores such as setting the table, grinding food, and rocking her younger siblings' cradles.
It is a curious case, this of Laura's. A poor blind and deaf girl, of humble history and humbler hopes,—unconscious of being the object of special regard, and yet every act and word carefully noted down, and more eagerly looked for by thousands in various parts of the world than those of purple-born princesses!
—Samuel Gridley Howe
In spite of these accomplishments, Laura remained cut off from those around her. During her long illness, she had lost any recollection of the spoken language that she was just beginning to learn. The only way she could now communicate with her family was through a primitive set of gestures. "I made signs for my Mother for food and drink," she later recalled, "but it was difficult for her to understand the reality of things whatever I wanted. She was very anxious to satisfy my little hungry mouth." Bridgman's mother tried hard to help her child but found her increasingly difficult to care for. Distracted by household chores and the needs of Laura's younger brothers and sisters, Harmony Bridgman knew that her daughter needed more attention but regretted that she had no time leftover to "study her case." As a result, Laura spent much of her time alone, seated in a rocking chair by the hearth, playing with an old boot that served as a substitute for a doll in the frugal Yankee household.
When Laura was seven, her situation came to the attention of a professor from nearby Dartmouth College medical school. After visiting her, he wrote a short account of her case for the newspapers. In Boston, Howe read this story with much excitement. Not long before, he had visited an asylum for the deaf in Connecticut where he had met Julia Brace , the nation's only known case of deaf/blindness at the time. When Brace arrived at the school, her guardians had tried to teach her sign language but had abandoned their efforts as hopeless. Howe began to speculate on ways to reach the intellect of the deaf and blind. "The trial should not be abandoned," he insisted, "though it had failed in her case, as well as in all that had been recorded before." After reading of Laura Bridgman, Howe set out immediately for Hanover to convince her parents to let their child come to Boston.
The Bridgmans agreed to let Howe try his experiment with their child and delivered her to Perkins in the fall of 1837. At first, Laura was confused and frightened by this change, but she quickly adapted, developing an evident affection for both Howe and the school's female teachers. Within a week, Howe began his plan for her education. He started by showing her a set of household objects—a knife, a pin, a pen and so on. To each of these he attached a paper label with the name of the object printed in raised letters. Running her fingers over these objects, Laura learned to associate each label with its matching object, and to match the two when they were separated. As she performed these exercises day after day, Howe was pleased to see "a light of intelligence light her hitherto puzzled countenance." But he felt she had not yet grasped the true use of language. She matched labels with their objects not to communicate, but merely as a rote exercise of "imitation and memory," performed to win the approval of her teachers.
Howe's next step was to break the labels apart into their component letters. Laura soon learned to place each letter in proper order, thus spelling the words herself. At first, Howe found that she also did this mechanically, much like "a very knowing dog" who performed tricks only to win approval. But after months of patient, methodical instruction, she suddenly seemed to understand the true power of those letters. "The truth began to flash upon her," Howe reported. "Her intellect began to work, she perceived that here was a way by which she could herself make up a sign of anything that was in her own mind, and show it to another mind, and at once her countenance lighted up with human expression; it was no longer a dog or parrot,—it was an immortal spirit, eagerly seizing upon a new link of union with other spirits! I could almost fix upon the moment when this truth dawned upon her mind, and spread its light to her countenance. I saw that the great obstacle was overcome."
Bridgman's language skills improved quickly over the next few years. She mastered the finger alphabet within a few months; by age 11, her thoughts flew so rapidly from her fingers that only the most experienced eye could keep up with her. She also learned to write, her pencil guided by specially designed grooved paper, and soon sent regular letters to her mother and a growing host of friends and well wishers. To Howe's delight, Laura proved to be an ideal student, intelligent and incredibly curious about the world. "Can birds study?" she wanted to know. "Why do not flies and horses go to bed?" "Are horses cross all day?" "What did man make red for?" Suffering from the hiccups, she wanted to know "if they were black & where they went when they went away?" She was so full of questions about the world beyond her limited experience that she often left her teachers exhausted by the end of the day.
While Bridgman was a diligent student, her scant exposure to language and her limited experience of the world proved to be formidable obstacles. Her teachers spent long hours trying to help her understand concepts that most children pick up effortlessly. When Laura was ten, for example, Howe reported that "some idea of the difficulty of teaching her common expressions, or the meaning of them, may be found from the fact that a lesson of two hours upon the words right and left was deemed very profitable, if she in that time really mastered the idea." But Bridgman and her teachers persevered; by the time she was 12, her language skills had improved enough for her to be able to begin lessons in math, geography, and history. After classes, Laura spent the rest of her day doing chores at the school, sweeping and sewing, or taking long walks with her female teacher through the streets of Boston. As they walked, Laura often played a game, stopping suddenly and insisting that her companion describe to her everything she could see and hear from that spot. "She will not be content," her teacher noted, "if she thinks I have not told her objects enough to make up the scene." In this way, Bridgman used her teachers as her own eyes and ears on the world.
After touring North America, Charles Dickens declared that Laura Bridgman was second only to Niagara Falls among the highlights of his trip. His account of their meeting, published in American Notes, was widely read, spreading her fame through America and England. Many followed Dickens' lead, coming to Perkins to see the child for themselves. To raise funds for the school, Howe had his students put on weekly exhibitions of their skills. At times, these shows drew more than a thousand visitors a day, most of them straining for a glimpse of Laura Bridgman. One of her instructors complained that the crowd "has become so great at the exhibitions, and presses so closely about Laura, that we are obliged to surround her desk by settees, thus making a little enclosure to protect her." Though she grew tired of the requests, Bridgman provided many hundreds of copies of her autograph to her admirers.
But Bridgman was more than a celebrity and a public curiosity. Her accomplishments confirmed Howe's claim that the deaf-blind could and should be educated. Within a few years, several more deaf-blind children came to Perkins and successfully followed her lead. As her story spread, educators and philanthropists around the world took a new interest in the plight of the deaf and blind. Many of them copied Howe's techniques, bringing the light of language to deaf-blind people in their own communities.
The most notable beneficiary of Bridgman's achievement was Helen Keller . Keller's parents first learned that their daughter could be educated when they read an account of Laura Bridgman. They wrote to the Perkins school for help and engaged the services of Anne Sullivan (Macy) , a teacher at the Perkins Institution. Before she began teaching Keller, Sullivan reviewed all of Howe's writings on Bridgman and sought Laura's own advice. When Keller was an adolescent, preparing to enter college, she came to live at Perkins for a few years and met Bridgman. Years later, she wrote, "The remembrance fills me afresh of the first deaf-blind person in the world to be taught whom I met in the first days of my own glad awakening. Again I feel the dainty lace lengthen as her lovely hands ply the needles…. With ever new gratitude I bless Dr. Samuel G. Howe who believed, and therefore was able to raise that child soul from a death-in-life existence to knowledge and joy."
Brace, Julia (1806–1884)
American who became famous as the nation's first known case of concurrent deafness and blindness. Born in Newington, Connecticut, on June 13, 1806; died in Bloomington, Connecticut, on August 12, 1884; admitted to the Hartford Asylum when she was 18.
Julia Brace became completely deaf and blind at age five and a half, having learned to read and spell words of two syllables. At age 18, she entered the asylum for the "deaf and dumb" at Hartford. With an acute sense of smell, Brace could differentiate between her own clothes and personal property from those of others. By putting an eye of a cambric needle upon the tip of her tongue, she could feel the thread as it entered the eye and by this had learned to thread a needle. Though her sense of smell was superior to Laura Bridgman 's, Brace was never given the attention and thought-out course of instruction.
The public's interest in Laura Bridgman slackened after she reached adulthood in the early 1850s. While he remained director of Perkins, Howe moved on to new challenges, most notably abolition and the education of the mentally handicapped. Howe continued to look on Laura almost as an adopted daughter, but he believed that institutional life was harmful and that she would be better off returning to her family in New Hampshire. Bridgman moved back to Hanover when she was 22 and developed a close relationship with her mother. But she soon pined for the stimulation and community of the Institution, a place where so many people understood sign language and where she felt she was needed. Less than a year after leaving Perkins, she suffered a nervous breakdown that brought her to the verge of death. Howe brought her back to Perkins, where she soon revived. Recognizing that Laura's true home was really the school, Howe then raised a fund that provided her with a permanent home there.
As Bridgman grew older, she never lost her enthusiasm for learning and for human companionship. She read her raised-letter Bible avidly, maintained a regular correspondence with a wide variety of friends, and even wrote several brief, unpublished autobiographies and some short poems. She also earned money as a seamstress. Her needlework and lacework were eagerly purchased by the school's visitors, valued not just for their novelty but also for their fine artistry. For many years, Bridgman worked at Perkins as an instructor, teaching blind girls how to sew.
Howe died in 1876. At his funeral, Laura passed her hands across his face one last time and wept at the loss of her "best & noble friend." But she took consolation in her faith. Bridgman had been keenly interested in religion since childhood. After the death of one of her sisters in the early 1860s, she experienced a conversion and became an ardent evangelical Baptist. Often she expressed her new faith in the evangelical cliches of the period, but at other times her religious ideas were more her own, giving voice to her unique experience of the world. For example, in a poem that was published and widely admired near the end of her life, Bridgman spoke of heaven as a "holy home" where her senses would be restored:
I pass this dark home toward light home.
Earthly home shall perish,
But holy home shall endure forever.
Earthly home is wintery.
Hard it is for us to appreciate the radiance of holy home because of the blindness of our minds.
How glorious holy home is, and still more than a beam of sun!
On May 24, 1889, Laura Bridgman died, following a brief illness. Her funeral was held in the hall of the Perkins Institution, the place that her achievements had transformed into one of the most talked about schools in America during the 19th century.
Dickens, Charles. American Notes. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1968 (reprint).
Elliott, Maude Howe, and Florence Howe Hall. Laura Bridgman: Dr. Howe's Famous Pupil and What He Taught Her. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1904.
Lamson, Mary Swift. Life and Education of Laura Dewey Bridgman, The Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Girl. Boston, MA: 1881 (reprinted NY: Arno Press, 1975).
Schwartz, Harold. Samuel Gridley Howe: Social Reformer, 1801–1876. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956.
Perkins School for the Blind, 175 North Beacon Street, Watertown, Massachusetts.
Ernest Freeberg , doctoral candidate in American History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia