At nineteen months old in 1882, Helen Keller, who had been a normal, healthy baby, fell ill with what doctors described as "an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain." It is conjectured that this may have been scarlet fever or meningitis.
In her autobiography Helen writes,
One brief spring, musical with the sound of robin and mockingbird, one summer rich in fruit and roses, one autumn of gold and crimson sped by and left their gifts at the feet of an eager, delighted child. Then, in the dreary month of February, came the illness that closed my eyes and ears....
However, before she lost her sight and hearing, the precocious Helen had learned several words, such as "tea" and, of course, "water--wah, wah" which came to be the link to her understanding of the sign language which Anne Sullivan taught her. Fortunately for Helen, hers was a redoubtable spirit and a quick mind, so she was able to learn from her mother who had her touch things and taught her to imitate the actions of making what she wanted such as turning a handle for ice cream or cutting with a knife for bread.