Monday, July 29, 2013

Overheard in DC: "none other than Helen Keller"

Yesterday I'm running through Georgetown and I see a not-uncommon site: a tour guide addressing a gaggle of what appeared to be DC visitors. They were across the street in front of a relatively interesting building. As I jogged by, I heard the tour guide say: "none other than Helen Keller". I looked over to the building and tried to figure out some context to the quote:

I noticed Alexander Graham Bell's name on the building and decided I'd Google it when I got home.

So what the heck do Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone), Helen Keller (who was blind and deaf) and Georgetown have in common? Actually, a heck of a lot. The building I had run by was the Volta Laboratory and Bureau. It was constructed in 1893 under the direction of Alexander Graham Bell to serve as a center of information for deaf and hard of hearing persons. At age 13, Helen Keller was there at the ground breaking.

Even this was no mere coincidence. Bell and Keller were actually good friends. From the Library of Congress:

Bell was, above all, a teacher of the deaf, and it was this very subject and the professional expertise he developed on the nature of sound that enabled him to invent the telephone. His friendship with the deaf and blind Helen Keller, a frequent guest with the Bell family, spilled over into science. Bell described what Annie Sullivan had done in teaching the young Helen to communicate by means of finger spelling as "not a miracle but a brilliantly successful experiment." Here Bell is "talking" to Helen Keller surrounded by family and friends. Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Here's the photo:

Bell had a personal connection to the deaf community, his mother was hard of hearing and his wife was deaf. The Library of Congress has quite a collection of letters between Bell and Keller.

Unfortunately, there is "limited accessibility to the public" and you can only get into the building by appointment.

Still, it's worth taking the time to learn about the projects conducted at the site. Remarkable stuff.

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