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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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: Magento Front End Web Developer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Front End Web Developer is re...

Investigo: management accountant

£250 - £300 per day: Investigo: Growing international marketing business requi...

Recruitment Genius: ORM / Online Reputational Consultant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ORM Consultant is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Facilities Manager

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of educat...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore