1876 – Samuel Gridley Howe, Founder of the Perkins Institute for the Blind (as well as the Massachusetts School for the Idiot and Feeble-Minded Youth) died at the age of 74 of a brain tumor.
He was survived by his wife Julia Ward, the composer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and their five successful children. Their 6th child, Sam Jr, died 13 years earlier at the age of five.
After graduating Harvard Medical School, Samuel, just coming off a break-up, went to Greece, joined the Greek Army and fought in their revolution. He had a few more international adventures, included a short stint in a German prison.
In 1832 he returned to Boston and founded the Perkins Institute for the Blind, teaching a handful of students at his father’s home, taking on the work of his old school friend, Dr. John Dix Fisher, who had worked for years petitioning the state to fund the project.
Thomas Perkins, the school’s namesake, was a slave trader and opium smuggler. His profession had left him very wealthy and he became an early, very generous investor.
This speaks highly to the level of commitment Samuel had towards this endeavor. Samuel wasn’t just someone who opposed slavery. He was a founder and editor of an anti-slavery newspaper, it’s rumored that his home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. At least on one occasion having to flee to Canada himself. He along with his friends organized and physically fought law enforcement to free captured men that were to be returned to their slave owners. When they failed there, they raised funds and bought their freedom. He was a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee. He was one of three appointed to the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission. His work led to the formation of the Freedmen’s Bureau, of which he joined, once formed.
The Perkins Institution was obviously a success. Although he often warned against the unintentional segregation of those with physical impairments, stating that it wouldn’t do society nor people with disabilities any favors to isolate them.
In 1837 he took in an 8 year-old girl by the name of Laura Bridgman who was both deaf and blind. She became the first person with such an affliction to be successfully educated in the U.S. And it was reading about this account that inspired Helen Keller’s mother to educate her now famous daughter.