Anne Sullivan

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Anne Sullivan
Portrait of Anne Sullivan, circa 1887.jpg
Sullivan circa 1887
Born Johanna Mansfield Sullivan
(1866-04-14)April 14, 1866
Feeding Hills, Agawam, Massachusetts
Died October 20, 1936(1936-10-20) (aged 70)
Forest Hills, New York
Spouse(s) John Albert Macy (1905–1932)

Johanna "Anne" Mansfield Sullivan Macy (April 14, 1866 – October 20, 1936), better known as Anne Sullivan, was an American teacher, best known for being the instructor and lifelong companion of Helen Keller.[1] Anne was an immigrant to the United States as a young child from Ireland.[2] Anne Sullivan contracted an eye infection when she was eight years old which left her blind and without reading or writing skills.[2] Anne received her education as a student of the Perkins School for the Blind where upon graduation she became a teacher to Helen Keller.[2] Anne Sullivan was an exceptionally good teacher whose work is still recognized and spoken of today.


Sullivan was born on April 14, 1866 in Feeding Hills, Agawam, Massachusetts. According to her baptismal certificate, her name at birth was Johanna Mansfield Sullivan; however, she was called Anne or Annie from birth.[3] She was the oldest child of her parents Thomas and Alice Sullivan. Anne’s family came to the United States as immigrants from Ireland who left during the Great Famine.[2] When Anne was only five years old she contracted an eye disease known as trachoma which is caused by bacteria creating painful infections and overtime caused her to lose her vision.[2] When Anne was eight, her mother passed away and her father abandoned the children for fear he could not raise them on his own.[2] After the death of their mother, Anne and her younger brother, James ("Jimmie") were sent to an almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts (today part of Tewksbury Hospital), where Jimmie eventually died three months into their stay. The Almshouse was incredibly overcrowded and Anne spent seven years there.[3] After Jimmy’s death, Anne was given an incredible opportunity for an eye operation offering her short-term relief for her eye pain.[2]


1912 HoweBuilding Watertown Massachusetts byAHFolsom

Due to Anne losing her sight at such a young age she had no skills in reading, writing or sewing and the only work Anne could find was as a housemaid; however, this position was unsuccessful.[2] Another blind resident staying at the Almshouse told Anne of schools for the blind and during a visit from the commission in 1880 to investigate the Tewksbury Almshouse, Anne approached an inspector about her desire to go to one of these blind schools.[2] Then, on October 7, 1880, Anne began her first day at one of these schools for the blind known as the Perkins Institution.[2] At first, her years at the Perkins Institution were humiliating due to Anne having rough mannerisms which caused her teachers to be impatient with her, but after two years she managed to connect with a few teachers and was making progress with her leaning.[2] While at Perkins, Anne befriended and learned the manual alphabet from Laura Bridgman, herself a graduate of Perkins and the first person with deafblindness to be educated. Sullivan graduated from Perkins School for the Blind in June 1886, when she was 20 years old, as the valedictorian of her class stating, “Fellow-graduates: duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully, and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform it…,".[2]


Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in 1898

That summer following Anne Sullivan’s graduation, the director of the Perkins Institution, Michael Anagnos, received contact from Captain Keller of Alabama who was in search of a teacher for his 7 year old daughter Helen Keller: a deaf-blindchild since 19 months old.[2] Michael immediately recommended Anne for this position in which she began her work on March 3, 1887 at the Keller’s home in Tuscumbia, Alabama.[2] It was the beginning of a 49-year relationship, Sullivan evolving first into governess, and then companion.[4] As soon as she arrived at the Kellers' house in Tuscumbia, Alabama, as a young instructor from the north, she quarreled with Helen's parents about the Civil War and over the fact that the Keller's used to own slaves.[5] Her teachings to Helen involved a very strict schedule with constant introduction of new vocabulary words; however, Anne quickly changed her teachings after seeing they did not suit Helen.[2] Instead, she began to teach Helen vocabulary based off the child’s own interests, where she spelled each word out into Helens palm and within six months this method proved to be working when Helen had learned 575 words, some multiplication tables, as well as the Braille system.[2] Next, she strongly encouraged Helen's parents to send the child to the Perkins School for the Blind where she could have an appropriate teaching. With their approval, Sullivan brought Helen to Boston in 1888 and stayed with her there. Anne continued to teach her bright protégée, who soon became famous for her remarkable progress. With the help of Michael Anagnos, Helen Keller became the figure of Perkins School for the Blind and brought funds and donations, making it the most famous and sought-after school for the blind in the country. However, Helen was accused of plagiarism which was very upsetting to her: Sullivan never returned to the campus, but did remain influential to the school.[2]

Personal life[edit]

Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan vacationing at Cape Cod in July 1888

After meeting and creating a friendship with Helen Keller, the two purchased a farm of seven acres in Wrentham, Massachusetts.[6] On May 3, 1905, Anne Sullivan married a Harvard University instructor and literary critic, John Albert Macy (1877–1932), who had helped Keller with her publications. He moved in with Keller and Sullivan, and the three lived together. However, within a few years, the marriage began to disintegrate. By 1914 they had separated, though Macy was listed as living as a "lodger" with Sullivan and Keller in the 1920 U.S. Census.[7] Sullivan and Macy never officially divorced. In the early years after their separation, Macy wrote and asked for money, and as the years progressed, Macy appears to have faded from Sullivan's life. Sullivan never remarried.


1932- Helen and Anne were each awarded honorary fellowships from the Educational Institute of Scotland. They also were awarded honorary degrees from Temple University.[8] 1955- Anne Sullivan is awarded an honorary degree from Harvard University.[6] 1956- Dedication ceremonies were held for the Deafblind Program’s Keller-Sullivan Cottage.[2]


Sullivan had been seriously visually impaired for almost all of her life, but by 1935 she was completely blind in both eyes. On October 15, 1936 Anne fell into a coma and then she died five days later on October 20[9] at age 70, in Forest Hills, Queens, New York. Sullivan died with Keller holding her hand.[10] Keller described Anne Sullivan's last month as being very agitated, but during the last week was said to return to her normal generous self [11] When Keller died in 1968, her ashes were placed in the Washington National Cathedral next to those of Sullivan.

Media representation[edit]

Anne Sullivan is the main character in The Miracle Worker, by William Gibson, originally produced for television, where she was portrayed by Teresa Wright.[12] The play then moved to Broadway, and was later produced as a 1962 feature film. Both the Broadway play and 1962 film featured Anne Bancroft in the Sullivan role.[13] Patty Duke—who played Helen Keller on Broadway and in the 1962 film version—later played Sullivan in a 1979 television remake.[14] Alison Elliott portrayed her in a 2000 television movie.[15] Alison Pill played Sullivan on Broadway in the short-lived 2010 revival of The Miracle Worker, with Abigail Breslin as Keller.

Both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke won Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for their roles as Sullivan and Keller in the 1962 film version.


  1. ^ Herrmann, Dorothy. Helen Keller: A Life, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998, p. 35; ISBN 0-679-44354-1
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r McGinnity, Seymour-Ford, & Andries, 2014
  3. ^ a b Anne Sullivan profile at
  4. ^ The life of Helen Keller, Royal National Institute of Blind People, last updated August 14, 2012. Retrieved December 30, 2012.
  5. ^ Kim E. Nielsen, The radical lives of Helen Keller, Year: 2007, c2004, New York University Press
  6. ^ a b Lash, 1980
  7. ^ In the 1920 census, Helen Keller was 38 years old and listed as head of her household in Queens, New York. Anne, age 52, is living with her, listed as a private teacher of Helen. John Macy, age 44, is also listed as living with them, as a "lodger", with the occupation of writer/author.
  8. ^ Herrmann, pp. 252–53
  9. ^ Nielsen, p. 266
  10. ^ Herrmann, p. 255.
  11. ^ Nielsen, p. 266.
  12. ^ Teresa Wright (I) at the Internet Movie Database
  13. ^ Anne Bancroft (I) at the Internet Movie Database
  14. ^ Patty Duke at the Internet Movie Database
  15. ^ Alison Elliott (I) at the Internet Movie Database

. Tewksbury Almshouse patient records

McGinnity, B.L, J Seymour-Ford, and K.J Andries. “Anne Sullivan.” Perkins School for the Blind. February 14, 2014. Accessed February 14, 2014.

Lash, Joseph P. Helen and Teacher: the Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. New York: Delacorte Press, 1980.

Nielsen, Kim E. Beyond the Miracle Worker: the Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller. Beacon Press, 2010.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]