Anne Sullivan

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Anne Sullivan

Anne Sullivan in 1887
BornJohanna Mansfield Sullivan
(1866-04-14)April 14, 1866
Feeding Hills, Massachusetts
DiedOctober 20, 1936(1936-10-20) (aged 70)
Forest Hills, New York, New York
SpouseJohn Albert Macy (m. 1905–1932) «start: (1905)–end+1: (1933)»"Marriage: John Albert Macy to Anne Sullivan" Location: (linkback://
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Anne Sullivan

Anne Sullivan in 1887
BornJohanna Mansfield Sullivan
(1866-04-14)April 14, 1866
Feeding Hills, Massachusetts
DiedOctober 20, 1936(1936-10-20) (aged 70)
Forest Hills, New York, New York
SpouseJohn Albert Macy (m. 1905–1932) «start: (1905)–end+1: (1933)»"Marriage: John Albert Macy to Anne Sullivan" Location: (linkback://

Johanna "Anne" Mansfield Sullivan Macy (April 14, 1866 – October 20, 1936), best-known as Anne Sullivan, was an Irish-American teacher best known as the instructor and companion of Helen Keller.[1]


Early life

Sullivan was born on April 14, 1866 in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts. According to her baptismal certificate, her full name at birth was Johanna Mansfield Sullivan; however, she was called Anne from the time she was born.[2] Her parents' names were Thomas Sullivan and Alice Cloesy Sullivan and they were Irish immigrants who couldn't read and had virtually no money.[2] In 1874 her mother, Alice, died, probably of tuberculosis;[3] after which Anne and her younger brother, Jimmie were sent to an almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts (today part of Tewksbury Hospital). She was at Tewksbury for four years.[2] In 1880, Anne, who was blind from untreated trachoma and had untreated intestinal worms[citation needed], was sent to the Perkins School for the Blind. Anne had a brother, Jimmie (James),[4] born in 1869,[3] a sister Ellen born in 1867[3] and a sister, Mary.[citation needed]


Michael Anagnos, director of the Institute, then located in South Boston, was approached to suggest a teacher for the Kellers' deaf-blind daughter. He asked Anne Sullivan, a former student, herself visually impaired and only 20 years old, to become Helen's instructor. It was the beginning of a 49-year relationship, Sullivan evolving into governess and then eventual companion.

Anne Sullivan arrived at Keller's house in the small Alabama town of Tuscumbia in March 1887. Anne was nerve-wracked, shaky, tired, and a bit homesick; she had suffered from nightmares and flashbacks of her terrible childhood during the four-day train journey south. Sullivan also experienced quite a culture shock from her first time in the deep south as she discovered how different the south was from the north. Sullivan was also dismayed at the archaic sexist and racist customs that still existed in the south under the guise of "chivalry."

Anne met the then-six-year-old Helen and immediately began to teach Helen to communicate by spelling words into her hand, beginning with "d-o-l-l" for the doll that she had brought Keller as a present. Anne was very relieved when little Helen was able to imitate the hand movements exactly without prompting because that indicated that Helen was a very bright girl.

Keller was frustrated, at first, because she did not understand that every object had a word uniquely identifying it. In fact, when Sullivan was trying to teach Keller the word for mug, Keller became so frustrated she broke the doll.[5] Keller's big breakthrough in communication came the next month. She realized that the motions her teacher was making on the palm of her hand, while running cool water over her other hand, symbolized the idea of water. She then nearly exhausted Sullivan demanding the names of all the other familiar objects in her world.

As lifelong companions Sullivan and Keller continually lived, worked, and traveled together.

Personal life

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

On May 3, 1905, Anne Sullivan married a Harvard University instructor and literary critic, John Albert Macy (1877–1932), who had helped Keller with her publications. Macy moved in with Keller and Sullivan, and the three lived together. However, within a few years, Macy's and Sullivan's marriage began to disintegrate. By 1914 they had separated, though Macy was listed as living as a "lodger" with Sullivan and Keller in the 1920 U.S. Census.[6] Sullivan and Macy never officially divorced. In the early years after their separation, John wrote and asked for money, and as the years progressed, 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.[7]


Sullivan had been just about blind for almost all of her life, but by 1935, Sullivan became completely blind a few years before her death on October 20, 1936 in Forest Hills, New York. She died at age 70 after a coma, with Keller holding her hand.[8] When Keller herself died in 1968, her ashes were placed in the Washington National Cathedral next to Anne's.

Media representation

Anne Sullivan is an integral character in The Miracle Worker, by William Gibson, originally produced for television, where she was portrayed by Teresa Wright.[9] 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.[10] Patty Duke—who played Helen Keller in the 1962 film version—later played Sullivan in a 1979 television remake.[11] Alison Elliott recently portrayed her in a 2000 television movie.[12] Alison Pill played Sullivan on Broadway in the 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.

Anne Sullivan's first month with Helen Keller is chronicled in the novel, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, by Sarah Miller.[13] The award-winning first-person narrative imagines Annie's point of view and emotional landscape as she struggles to break through to her pupil.


  1. ^ Herrmann, Dorothy. Helen Keller: A Life, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998, p. 35. ISBN 0-679-44354-1
  2. ^ a b c
  3. ^ a b c Nielsen, Kim E. (2009). Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller. Beacon Press. pp. 5, 7. ISBN 978-0-8070-5046-0. "1874 death of Alice Sullivan. .. stories indicate she had tuberculosis" 
  4. ^ 1870 United States Federal Census
  5. ^ Wilkie, Katherine E. Helen Keller: Handicapped Girl. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill
  6. ^ In the 1920 U.S. census, Helen Keller was 38 years old and listed as head of her household in Queens, New York. Anne, age 52, is living with her, listed as a private teacher of Helen. John Macy, age 44, is also living with them, listed as a lodger, with the occupation of writer/author.
  7. ^ Herrmann, p. 252–53
  8. ^ Herrmann, p. 255.
  9. ^ Teresa Wright (I) at the Internet Movie Database
  10. ^ Anne Bancroft (I) at the Internet Movie Database
  11. ^ Patty Duke at the Internet Movie Database
  12. ^ Alison Elliott (I) at the Internet Movie Database
  13. ^ Miller, Sarah. Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller. New York: Atheneum, 2007.

Further reading

External links