Anne Sullivan Macy (1866 – 1936) was born in Massachusetts and although she was called Anne or Annie from the very beginning, her baptismal certificate identifies her as Johanna Mansfield Sullivan. Her parents were poor, illiterate Irish immigrants. By age seven she was unschooled, hot tempered, and nearly blind from untreated trachoma. Her mother was frail and died of tuberculosis when Anne was eight years old and her abusive, alcoholic father abandoned his family when Anne was ten years old. She and her brother were sent to the state almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts where Jimmie died a short time later. Anne spent four unhappy years at Tewksbury, grieving over her brother’s death and the disappointment of two unsuccessful eye operations.
As a result of her direct plea to a state official who had come to inspect the Tewksbury almshouse, she was allowed to leave and enroll in the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston in 1880. Here she quickly learned to read and write and to use the manual alphabet to communicate with a deaf/blind friend. While at Perkins, Anne had several successful eye operations, which improved her sight significantly. In 1886 she graduated from Perkins as valedictorian of her class. A short time later, Anne accepted the Keller family’s offer to come to Tuscumbia, Alabama, to tutor their blind, deaf, mute seven year-old daughter, Helen.
In March of 1887 Anne began her lifelong role as Helen Keller’s teacher, a true pioneer in the field of education of deaf-blind. In 1894 Anne was to deliver a speech at the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf in Chautauqua, New York. She was too shy to speak and had her friend and mentor, Alexander G. Bell, speak for her. Anne was Helen’s educator for thirteen years and, in 1900, accompanied her to Radcliffe College. Anne went with Helen to every class, spelling into her hand all the lectures, demonstrations, and assignments. When Helen received her Bachelor of Arts degree, it was a triumph for both women. Annie and John Macy married in 1905 and maintained a relationship through 1914.
Despite Anne’s declining health, she and Helen traveled widely in the United States and later in other countries. They gave lectures, vaudeville performances, and even appeared in a film titled "Deliverance." In 1924, Anne and Helen began to work for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) as advocates, counselors, and fundraisers. By 1927 they had addressed 250,000 people in 249 meetings on the subject of blindness.
In 1930-31 Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania wished to recognize Anne and Helen’s achievements with honorary degrees. Helen accepted but Anne refused until a year later when she reluctantly accepted the honor. In 2003 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
1893, Portrait photograph of Helen Keller (seated) and Anne Sullivan. Photo courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind, Helen Keller Archives.
Historic footage! Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in a Vitaphone newsreel from 1930:
Dedication of the Helen Keller Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 1987: