The Heroic Companionship of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In our Heroes Book, we discuss the remarkable story of Karl Merk, a German farmer who ten years ago lost both his arms in a farming accident.  In July 2008, Merk was the recipient of the first double-arm transplant, conducted in a 15-hour surgery at the Munich University Clinic by a team of 40 doctors, nurses, and anesthesiologists.  Today, after three years of intensive physical therapy, Merk has regained significant use of his arms and is acquiring more function every day.

Merk and the medical team that is treating him are an example of companionate heroes — people who are dependent on each other for their heroic qualities to surface.  Usually, but not always, companionate heroes consist of a person who needs considerable help to survive, and another person who has the perfect skill-set to assist him or her.

Perhaps the most famous companionate heroes of the 20th century were Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.  When Keller was 19 months old, she contracted an illness that left her blind and deaf.  She was imprisoned in a dark, silent world, and no one in her family could reach her.  Keller’s parents hired 20-year-old Anne Sullivan to perform the seemingly hopeless task of educating Keller.  Sullivan was the perfect person for the job.  Visually impaired herself, Sullivan was empathetic, patient, resourceful, and persevering.

Sullivan first tried to teach Keller basic language skills by using her finger to spell words on Keller’s hand, but Keller did not understand that each object had a different name.  A breakthrough occurred on April 5, 1887.  Sullivan led Keller to a water pump and splashed water on one of Keller’s hands while spelling the word water on the other hand. Keller later recalled, “We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honey-suckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.”

Sullivan next tackled Keller’s atrocious table manners. Keller had the habit of eating with her hands, grabbing from the plates of everyone at the table, and throwing a temper tantrum if anyone tried to stop her.  Sullivan punished Keller’s tantrums by refusing to “talk” with Helen by spelling words on her hands.  Soon Keller developed impeccable manners and learned how to perform everyday tasks such as getting dressed and brushing her hair.
Thanks to Sullivan, Keller was transformed into a bright, curious, lovely young woman who was destined to make a positive mark on the world. The bond between Keller and Sullivan grew into a beautiful friendship that lasted for 49 years.

Keller was the first deaf and blind person in America to graduate from college, and she later became a prolific author of many books and articles on a variety of social and political topics. Most importantly, Keller became a world-famous advocate for people with disabilities. The 1962 film The Miracle Worker inspired millions of people with its story of Keller’s triumph over disability and Sullivan’s selfless devotion to helping Keller fulfill her vast potential.

“Helen Keller was a fighter,” said Keller’s grandniece, Keller Thompson-Johnson. “She didn’t hide from her problems. She knew that to become a better person and to show other people that they too could overcome their disabilities, she had to be a fighter herself.”  During her lifetime, Helen Keller was consistently ranked near the top of almost every Most Admired list.  In addition, Anne Sullivan deservedly acquired the reputation as a legendary teacher.  Keller and Sullivan are forever linked as heroes who brought out the best in each other.

Below is a rare clip of Anne Sullivan explaining how she taught language skills to Helen Keller.

8 Responses to “The Heroic Companionship of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan”


  • The story of Helen Keller is often well known and taught to students at a very young age. She is an inspiration to us all not only for her sheer willpower to never give up when faced with near impossible tasks but her desire to accomplish all her goals in life, never letting her disabilities hold her back. While Helen Keller is considered a role model and hero for many around the world, her teacher, Anne Sullivan, is often overlooked but still deserves the title of a hero nonetheless. It takes a special person to be able to have the patience, understanding, and temperament to deal with a person as troubled as Helen was early in her life. Though, refusing to give up, Sullivan stuck with Helen through her entire life. Her actions truly exhibit those of a hero and she should forever be remembered for them.

  • These are truly inspiring stories where one needs the other to live a more positive life. Because of these examples, I think it’s important to not give up on people.

  • The ramifications of the breakthroughs made by Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan cannot be overestimated. It would be impossible to count the number of Human minds rescued from oblivion by the techniques they created and developed, and by the singular change in societal attitudes toward the disabled that they engendered. They present us with yet another example that the power of the Human spirit can overcome anything. 8)

  • I think that patience and compassion are two of the most admirable traits of a hero. I cannot even imagine what life would be like if I could not see or hear anything – abilities I certainly take for granted. For someone to patiently and lovingly take on the challenge of teaching someone such as Keller to speak and comprehend language is extremely heroic to me. I also have to think that whoever interacted with Keller could easily mock her in her very presence. She could not see any ugly faces directed at her, and definitely couldn’t hear laughing or whispering behind her back. I’m sure many people did. But hearing Sullivan’s story, and watching the video of her and Keller interacting made it clear that she genuinely cared for Keller, and that is more than heroic to me.

  • This blog defines a hero in all aspects. The patience, compassion and overall personable character possessed by Sullivan throughout her life and specifically in her interactions with Helen Keller are traits to be regarded as nothing short of epically heroic. The difficulty of such a feat is surely underrated yet Sullivan waded through these obstacles and sought to better the education of Keller. She did all this through pure care and love for another being and will always be a hero to us all.

  • To me the most important part of the Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan story is how dramatically it demonstrates that it is possible for anyone to do anything. Another example of overcoming great obstacles is in the new movie “Soul Surfer.” This movie is based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton. She is a surf boarder in Hawaii and at age 13 experiences a shark biting off her left arm. Although surf boarders are thought to need two arms. Bethany goes back to surfing with one arm and wins a National Championship. My point is that it is really true that anyone can accomplish great feats with enough will and determination. However, I do think the Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan example is one of the best illustration of this point.

  • The story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan is admirable because it allows one to see that there are so many ways to be a hero to oneself and to others. Anne Sullivan was a hero in that she helped Helen Keller work through her struggles as a result to being both blind and deaf. Anne Sullivan is heroic because it takes a special type of person to have the patience and the determination to not give up on Helen Keller.
    What makes Helen Keller heroic is that she took her hugest adversity, and allowed it to test her strength and her character. She was persistent and dedicated enough to not let her limitations stop her from reaching her goals; for example graduating from college. What is unique about Keller’s story is that she is an example of how influential a hero can have on a person’s life, and that it is in fact cyclic. Sullivan was Keller’s hero in teaching her how to overcome her disabilities; Keller became her own hero in order to actually work through her struggles, and Keller was in fact a hero for others by advocating for people with similar disabilities.

  • The comparison between Karl Merk’s story with Helen Keller’s is an interesting one. It shows that one may be willing to do brave and new tasks but that the support of a person or group of people willing to help them is essential in a hero’s journey. Helen Keller’s story is a remarkable and famous one that shocks and inspires almost every one that hears it. Although teaching a blind and deaf person the notion of language seemed impossible, Anne Sullivan’s heroic efforts to help Helen Keller are tremendous. As with Helen Keller, her ability to defy her disabilities and reach the intellectual level that she did seems to be a fictional story!

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