Anne Sullivan & the Making of a Miracle Worker

Anne Sullivan & the Making of a Miracle Worker October 28, 2021




The other day my spouse Jan and I watched the PBS “American Masters” segment, “Becoming Helen Keller.” It was a real treat. And even more so for me as I saw Jan’s name scroll by in the credits among a bunch of people marked out for special “thanks.”

A really good summary of Helen Keller’s life and contributions.

In the program they made much of that turning point in the movie about Helen Keller, with the pump, and her finding the word “water!” Their point was that was just the beginning of a life, and they were concerned we not forget the fullness of Helen Keller’s life and work. Fair point. Well made.

And, that moment was something amazing. And small wonder it would be the turning point in her life. Miracle indeed.

And that turned me to thinking about the miracle worker, Anne Sullivan.

As it happens, she, too, had a turning moment in her life. A moment where worlds changed.

Johanna Mansfield Sullivan was born on April 14, 1866. Although from birth she was called Anne. Her parents had immigrated from Ireland in the midst of the Great Hunger. At five she contracted trachoma, which left her functionally blind. Three years later her mother died and her father abandoned his children. Anne & her younger brother were placed in an poor house in Tewksbury. Her brother died within months.

By all accounts Tewksbury was a hell hole. The inmates were overcrowded and abused. Nonetheless there was some attention, and she had two surgeries on her eyes. But neither did much to help.

Meanwhile Tewksbury’s unsavory reputation called for investigation. In 1880, the remarkable Frank Sanborn led a committee to investigate reports that included numerous abuses that even suggested incidents of cannibalism. Somehow Anne learned of the committee and that it involved powerful men. When they arrived, she pushed herself to the front and called out “Mr Sanborn! Mr Sanborn, I want to go to school!.”

I don’t know what he saw in the dirty little half blind fourteen year old. Maybe just her audacity. But, I suspect more. And of course, there was Sanborn himself. An unusual man.

Within weeks he had her moved to Perkins School for the Blind.

She arrived functionally blind and totally illiterate. Further surgeries helped give her partial sight. Six years, later at twenty she graduated Valedictorian.

And, then the letter came from Alabama. That’s another story. But it was one that would take a miracle worker.

She had a fire within her. And she had the tools.

Anne Sullivan, later to be named Miracle Worker by Mark Twain was ready…

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