In the middle years of the nineteenth century, Laura Bridgman was one of the best-known women in the world, possibly second only to Queen Victoria. Her mentor, Samuel Gridley Howe, publicized her accomplishments as proof of the power and resilience of human nature. Ernest Freeberg, mindful of Howe’s importance in Bridgman’s life, accords him a major role in her biography, using Howe’s ideas to illuminate mid-nineteenth century beliefs.
Samuel Gridley Howe, born November 10, 1801, attended Brown University because his father, an ardent Jeffersonian, refused to send him to the Federalist Harvard College. Graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1824, he found medical practice in Boston unsatisfactory. Inspired by the example of his favorite poet, Lord Byron, Howe enlisted in the Greek war for independence from Turkey, serving as a surgeon and soldier for seven years. Shortly after returning to Boston, he agreed to become director of a projected school for the blind. Because no such school existed on the American continent, Howe spent a year traveling in Europe studying schools for the blind before returning in July, 1832, to open his own. When a wealthy Boston merchant donated his home, the school was named the Perkins Institute for the Blind.
Freeberg stresses that Howe wished to be innovative and was also determined to avoid European errors. He created embossed maps and a raised letter system for books, first called Howe Type and later Boston Line Type, so that the blind might read. He invented machines to inexpensively produce Bibles and other books for the blind. Howe criticized the way European schools tended to stress only one aspect of education, whether literary, musical, or vocational training. Furthermore, he noted that the schools assumed blind persons would always be dependent on others and, after graduation, left them to beg in the streets or warehoused them in asylums for the indigent. Howe was convinced that if schools tailored their instruction to the individual needs and abilities of each student, the blind could become productive citizens. A major opportunity to demonstrate what his system could accomplish came when he discovered Laura Bridgman.
Bridgman was born on December 21, 1829. At the age of two, she and her older sisters suffered severe attacks of scarlet fever. Two sisters died, and Bridgman barely survived; she was bedridden for two years and did not regain her full strength for three more years. The fever destroyed her sight and her hearing, leaving her with little sense of smell or taste. By the time she recovered, she had forgotten how to speak and could barely communicate by pantomime and hand signs. She followed her mother around the house, clinging to her apron, and learned to sew, knit, and do minor household chores by imitating her mother. As Bridgman grew older, she became too strong for her mother to control, and her father was forced to use physical restraint when she misbehaved. When Howe appeared in October, 1837, offering to educate the child at the Perkins Institute, the Bridgmans willingly consented.
Freeberg notes that Howe believed Bridgman’s terrible condition would permit him to study the role of the senses in forming human knowledge and in shaping human nature. Howe was convinced that Bridgman was not a blank slate, but possessed innate moral and religious feelings, which would become overt during her education. Her progress under Howe’s care would provide scientific evidence for the goodness of human nature.
No one had ever taught language to a person as severely disabled as Bridgman, but Howe was confident he would succeed by using her remaining sense of touch. After she became comfortable in her new home, Howe began her education by inducing her to associate objects with raised letter labels he placed on them, as “pin” with a pin or “spoon” with a spoon. When Bridgman learned to associate correct labels with objects, Howe broke the words into letters and trained her to assemble letters into words describing the objects. In a widely quoted passage, Howe summarized the results of several months of patient, methodical instruction.
The truth began to flash upon her, her intellect began to work, she perceived that here was a way by which she could herself make up a sign of anything that was in her own mind, and show it to another mind, and at once her countenance lighted up with human expression; it was no longer a dog or parrot,—it was an immortal spirit, eagerly seizing upon a new link of union with other spirits!
Howe’s metal letters soon became inadequate to fulfill Bridgman’s eager desire to use her new language skills and communicate with others. He taught her to use the manual or finger alphabet for the blind, already invented in Europe, which she...
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