Researchers have uncovered a rare photograph of a young Helen Keller with her teacher Anne Sullivan, nearly 120 years after it was taken on Cape Cod, Mass., and tucked inside a family album.
The photograph, shot in July 1888 in Brewster, shows an 8-year-old Keller sitting outside in a light-colored dress, holding Sullivan’s hand and cradling one of her beloved dolls.
Experts on Keller’s life think it could be the earliest photo of the two together and the only one showing the blind and deaf child with a doll -- the first word Sullivan spelled for Keller after they met in 1887 -- according to the New England Historic Genealogical Society, which now has the photo.
“It’s really one of the best images I’ve seen in a long, long time,” said Helen Selsdon, an archivist at the American Foundation for the Blind, where Keller worked for more than 40 years. “This is just a huge visual addition to the history of Helen and Annie.”
For more than a century, the photograph has belonged to the family of Thaxter Spencer, an 87-year-old man in Waltham.
Spencer’s mother, Hope Thaxter Parks, often stayed at the Elijah Cobb House on Cape Cod during the summer as a child. In July 1888, she played with Keller, whose family had traveled from Tuscumbia, Ala., to vacation in Massachusetts.
Spencer, who doesn’t know which of his relatives took the picture, told the society that his mother, four years younger than Keller, remembered the child exploring her face with her hands.
In June, Spencer donated a large collection of photo albums, letters, diaries and other heirlooms to the genealogical society, which preserves artifacts from New England families for research.
It wasn’t until recently that staff members at the society realized the photograph’s significance.
Advocates for the blind said they had never heard of it. But after the discovery was announced Wednesday, it was learned that the photo had been published half a century ago in the Boston Globe.
It was unclear whether there was more than one copy of the photograph.
D. Brenton Simons, the society’s president and chief executive, said the photograph offered a glimpse of what was an important time in Keller’s life.
Sullivan was hired in 1887 to teach Keller, who had been left blind and deaf after an illness at the age of 1 1/2 .
With her new teacher, Keller learned language from words spelled manually into her hand. Not quite 7, the girl went from an angry, frustrated child without a way to communicate to an eager scholar.
Sullivan, who stayed at Keller’s side for decades, died in 1936.
Keller became a world-famous author and humanitarian. She died in 1968.