Picture of Helen Keller as a child revealed after 120 years

Photographs of Helen Keller, the world-renowned advocate for the deaf and the blind who suffered from both handicaps herself, are not hard to come by. After all, she only died in 1968, at the age of 87. However, an image of the pioneer which has surfaced this week is a little bit different. Above all, there is its age.

The image, released by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, was taken 120 years ago and shows an eight-year-old Keller holding the hand of Anne Sullivan, whose legacy is almost as important. She was the teacher who first taught Keller how to understand and articulate language. More important still for Keller scholars, the black and white photograph shows her holding in another hand a doll. The word "doll" was the first Keller ever spoke – the fruit of her lessons from Ms Sullivan, whose technique included spelling out words on the palm of the little girl's hand.

The picture, apparently taken at Cape Cod in July 1888, was found in an album by Thaxter Spencer, 87, whose mother was a childhood friend of Keller. Mr Spencer donated the album and other items including diaries and letters to the genealogical society last June. However, the group did not notice the particular photograph until now. Mr Spencer said his mother, Hope Thaxter Parks, used to play with Keller when her family travelled from their home in Tennessee for summer holidays on the Cape. Unaware of who might have wielded the camera that day, he recalls his mother saying that Keller used to explore her young friend's face with her hands.

He admitted he had no idea how much of a stir the photograph would create, saying: "I never thought much about it. It just seemed like something no one would find very interesting."

What he missed were the combined components of the image, probably the first ever taken of Keller and Ms Sullivan together. It shows the strength of their bond, even at that early stage.

The inclusion of the doll is a virtual metaphor for Keller's breakthrough from being a child angered and frustrated at her handicap to becoming a tireless scholar and activist for blind and deaf people everywhere.

"It is really one of the best images I have seen in a long, long time," Helen Selsdon, an archivist at the American Foundation for the Blind, where Keller worked for more than four decades, told the Associated Press news agency. "This is just a huge visual addition to the history of Helen and Annie."

Not that the picture has been entirely unseen until now. After announcing its discovery on Wednesday, the genealogical society, which will continue to hold it, discovered that it had been published in a Cape Cod journal in 1987 and by The Boston Globe newspaper half a century before that. It is not yet clear whether more than one copy may have existed at one time. Nevertheless, scholars and advocates for the deaf-blind will consider the image one of the most important additions to the Keller archive for a generation.

"The way Anne is gazing so intently at Helen, I think it's a beautiful portrait of the devotion that lasted between these two women all of Anne's life," said Jan Seymour-Ford, a research librarian at Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, which both Sullivan and Keller attended. "It is a beautiful composition. It is not even the individual elements. It is the fact it has all of the components."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'