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."

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