Even if you’ve watched The Miracle Worker a handful of times, you probably still have a sizable gap in your knowledge of Helen Keller’s life. History’s most famous deaf-blind person was an inspiring author and activist, a vaudeville performer, a close friend of Mark Twain, and a world traveler investigated by the FBI for her political views. Here are 10 things you might not know about Helen Keller.
1. Helen Keller became deaf and blind when she was 19 months old.
The Keller family, living in northwest Alabama, had lost some of their wealth during the Civil War (Helen's father, Arthur H. Keller, served in the Confederate Army). After the war, he bought and became editor of The North Alabamian, a weekly local newspaper. Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. When she was 19 months old, an unknown infectious illness—perhaps scarlet fever or rubella—caused her to lose her hearing and sight.
2. Helen Keller was friends with Alexander Graham Bell.
When Keller was 6 years old, her parents took her to Julian John Chisolm, an eye and ear specialist at the University of Maryland. The renowned physician recommended that Keller see Alexander Graham Bell. Because Bell’s wife, Mabel Gardiner Bell, was deaf, the inventor founded schools for deaf students (as well as their teachers) and was involved with teaching deaf children. Following Bell’s suggestion, Keller’s parents enrolled her at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, through which she met her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Bell mentored Sullivan and was friends with her and Keller until his death in 1922.
3. Helen Keller was also good friends with Mark Twain.
In 1895, as a teenager, Keller met Twain at a lunch in New York. Later, she wrote that he “treated me not as a freak, but as a handicapped woman seeking a way to circumvent extraordinary difficulties.” Twain had a daughter the same age as Keller, and eventually the two bonded over their political views and mutual admiration for each other. She recognized the author by his scent, as he often reeked of tobacco. Twain convinced the industrialist Henry Huttleston Rogers to help pay for Keller’s education, and was also the first person to call Sullivan a miracle worker. Twain even gave Keller a blurb for her 1903 autobiography, which she wrote at age 22.
4. Helen Keller fell in love with her secretary.
In 1916, at 36 years old, Keller fell in love with Peter Fagan, a former newspaper reporter in his late twenties. Fagan was working as Keller's temporary secretary while Sullivan was sick. The couple secretly got engaged and even took out a marriage license before Keller’s family found out and forbade the marriage. Keller regretted that she never married, reportedly remarking, “If I could see, I would marry first of all.”
5. Helen Keller was a member of the Socialist Party of America.
Keller focused a big part of her life on politics. She belonged to the Socialist Party of America, helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and was investigated by the FBI because of her far-left views. Keller also supported industrial workers’ rights, women’s suffrage, and birth control, and she wrote essays about her socialist views and admiration of Vladimir Lenin.
6. Helen Keller was a vaudevillian “eighth wonder of the world.”
Keller and Sullivan made a career in writing and lectures, but this still didn’t earn them a viable income. So for four years in the 1920s, they hit the vaudeville circuit. Keller would speak about her life, Sullivan would translate, and audiences could ask questions as part of a Q&A. They traveled from town to town, and Keller was billed as “the brightest star of happiness and optimism” and “the eighth wonder of the world.”
7. Helen Keller’s image (with Braille) is on U.S. currency.
Keller’s image is on the Alabama state quarter (part of the 50 state quarters program). She appears as an old woman sitting in a rocking chair, holding a book (Keller died at age 87 in 1968). Introduced in March 2003, the words “Helen Keller” are on the quarter in the Latin alphabet and in braille.
8. Helen Keller traveled the world to advocate for people with disabilities.
Keller was a major globetrotter. She traveled to 39 countries, from the UK to Japan to Syria. During her travels, Keller met with presidents, prime ministers, and other government leaders to advocate for educating blind people, deaf people, and people with disabilities. In 1952, during her visit to the Middle East, she gave lectures at medical schools, visited schools for disabled students, and met with organizations that helped blind people.
Keller wrote about her experiences in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, emphasizing the kindness of the people and the majesty of the places. As she wrote: “It was more wonderful than I had dreamed for us to travel through semi-legendary lands … I could still feel something of the old picturesqueness, the poetry, the oriental atmosphere and the spirit of prophecy, and I was fascinated by the power of the Moslem religion.”
9. Helen Keller introduced the Akita dog to the U.S.
In the 1930s, Keller toured Japan to give speeches and visit schools, and was met with warmth and reverence. A Japanese police officer gave her an Akita dog named Kamikaze-Go as a present, and she fell in love with him. She became the first person to bring the dog breed to the U.S. Sadly, Kamikaze-Go died shortly after Keller’s return to the States, so Japan’s government gave her another Akita from the same litter. In 1948, a few years after World War II ended, Keller visited Japan again to meet with disabled veterans in military hospitals.
10. Helen Keller lived to be 87 years old.
Keller died on June 1, 1968 in Easton, Connecticut. According to Winifred Corbally, her companion after Sullivan’s death, she “drifted off in her sleep.”
11. Helen Keller’s life story inspired a Bollywood film.
Released in 2005, the Bollywood film Black is about a young deaf-blind girl named Michelle, her relationship with her teacher, and how she deals with her inability to hear and see. Inspired by Keller’s life, Black’s director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, read her autobiography and visited the Helen Keller Institute for the Deaf and Blind before writing and directing the film. It premiered at Cannes and won both lead actors Indian Filmfare awards.
A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2022.