Anne Sullivan

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This article is about Anne Sullivan, the teacher and companion of Helen Keller. For other uses, see Anne Sullivan (disambiguation).
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 (1877–1932)

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 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]


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 a bacterial eye disease known as trachoma, which created painful infections and over time made her nearly blind.[2] When Anne was eight, her mother passed away and her father abandoned the children two years later for fear he could not raise them on his own.[2] Anne and her younger brother James ("Jimmie") were sent to an overcrowded almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts (today part of Tewksbury Hospital). Jimmie, who suffered a debilitating hip ailment, died three months into their stay. Anne remained at the Tewksbury house for four years after Jimmy’s death, where she had eye operations that offered some short-term relief for her eye pain but ultimately proved ineffective.[3]


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 Tewksbury almshouse told Anne of schools for the blind. During an 1880 inspection of the almshouse, Anne convinced an inspector to allow her to leave and enroll in the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, where she began her studies on October 7, 1880.[2] Although her rough manners made her first years at Perkins humiliating for her, she managed to connect with a few teachers and made progress with her learning.[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 there. Also while at Perkins, she had a series of eye operations that significantly improved her vision.[3] In June 1886 Anne graduated from the Perkins School at age 20 as the valedictorian of her class. She stated “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

The summer following Anne Sullivan's graduation, the director of the Perkins Institution, Michael Anagnos, was contacted by Arthur Keller, who was in search of a teacher for his 7-year-old deaf-blind daughter Helen.[2] Anagnos immediately recommended Sullivan for this position and she began her work on March 3, 1887 at the Kellers' home in Tuscumbia, Alabama.[2] As soon as she arrived at the Kellers' house, the young instructor from the North quarreled with Helen's parents about the Civil War and over the fact that the Kellers used to own slaves.[4] However she also quickly connected with Keller. It was the beginning of a 49-year relationship: Sullivan evolved from teacher to governess and finally to companion and friend.[5]

Sullivan's teachings to Keller involved a very strict schedule with constant introduction of new vocabulary words; however, Sullivan quickly changed her teachings after seeing they did not suit Keller.[2] Instead, she began to teach Keller vocabulary based on the child’s own interests, where she spelled each word out into Keller's palm; within six months this method proved to be working when Keller had learned 575 words, some multiplication tables, as well as the Braille system.[2] Sullivan strongly encouraged Keller's parents to send the child to the Perkins School where she could have an appropriate teaching. When they agreed, Sullivan took Keller to Boston in 1888 and stayed with her there. Sullivan continued to teach her bright protégée, who soon became famous for her remarkable progress. With the help of Anagnos, Helen Keller became a public symbol for the Perkins School and this increased funding and donations, making it the most famous and sought-after school for the blind in the country. However, an accusation of plagiarism against Keller was very upsetting to Sullivan: she left and never returned to the campus, but did remain influential to the school.[2] Sullivan remained a close companion to Keller and continued to assist in her education, which ultimately included a degree from Radcliffe College.

Personal life[edit]

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

On May 3, 1905, Anne Sullivan married Harvard University instructor and literary critic, John Albert Macy (1877–1932), who had helped Keller with her publications.[6] 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 is listed as living as a "lodger" with Sullivan and Keller in the 1920 U.S. Census.[7] Sullivan and Macy never officially divorced. As the years progressed after their separation, Macy appears to have faded from Sullivan's life. Sullivan never remarried.


In 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] In 1955 Anne was awarded an honorary degree from Harvard University.,[6] and in 1956 the director's cottage at the Perkins School was named the Keller-Macy 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 McGinnity, Seymour-Ford, & Andries, 2014
  3. ^ a b c Anne Sullivan profile at
  4. ^ Kim E. Nielsen, The radical lives of Helen Keller, Year: 2007, c2004, New York University Press
  5. ^ The life of Helen Keller, Royal National Institute of Blind People, last updated August 14, 2012. Retrieved December 30, 2012.
  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 listed as living with Helen as a private teacher. 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]