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Laura Dewey Lynn Bridgman (December 21, 1829 – May 24, 1889) is known as the first deaf-blind American child to gain a significant education in the English language, fifty years before the more famous Helen Keller. However, there are accounts of deaf-blind people communicating in tactile sign language before this time, and the deafblind Victorine Morriseau (1789–1832) had successfully learned French as a child some years earlier.
Her dreams (which were mainly kinesthetic) were studied by Joseph Jastrow and G. Stanley Hall, amongst others. A series of reports by various authors outlining her education were published. Henry Herbert Donaldson studied her brain after her death and reported that parts of it were undeveloped.
Laura Bridgman was born at Hanover, New Hampshire, being the third daughter of Daniel Bridgman, a Baptist farmer, and his wife Harmony, daughter of Cushman Downer, and granddaughter of Joseph Downer, one of the five first settlers (1761) of Thetford, Vermont. Laura was a delicate infant, puny and rickety, and was subject to fits up to twenty months old, but otherwise seemed to have normal sense. However, her family was struck with scarlet fever when she was two years old. The illness killed her two older sisters and brother and left her deaf, blind, and without a sense of smell or taste. Though she gradually recovered health, she remained deaf-blind, but was kindly treated and was in particular made a sort of playmate by an eccentric bachelor friend of the Bridgmans, Mr. Asa Tenney, who as soon as she could walk used to take her for rambles through the fields. As a child, she learned to sew and knit through touch, but had no language.
In 1837, James Barrett, of Dartmouth College, saw her and mentioned her case to Dr. Mussey, the head of the medical department, who wrote an account which attracted the attention of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, the director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind at Boston. He determined to try to get the child into the Institution and to attempt to educate her; her parents assented, and in October 1837 Laura entered the school.
She was a comely child and of a sensitive and affectionate nature and was imitative insofar as she could follow the actions of others. However, she was limited in her communication to the narrower uses of touch. Her mother, preoccupied with house-work, had already ceased to be able to control her, and her father's authority was due to fear of superior force, not to reason. Howe had recently met Julia Brace, a deaf-blind resident at the American School for the Deaf who communicated using tactile sign, and developed a plan to teach the young Bridgman to read and write through tactile means — something that had not been attempted previously, to his knowledge. At first he and his assistant, Lydia Hall Drew (1815–1887), used words printed with raised letters, and later they progressed to using a manual alphabet expressed through tactile sign. Eventually she received a broad education.
Dr. Howe taught Laura words before the individual letters. His first experiment consisted of pasting little paper labels upon several common articles such as keys, spoons, and knives, with the names of the articles printed in raised letters, which he got her to feel and differentiate; then he gave her the same labels by themselves, which she learned to associate with the articles they referred to, until, with the spoon or knife alone before her she could find the right label for each from a mixed heap. The next stage was to give her the component letters and teach her to combine them in the words she knew. Gradually, in this way, she learned all the alphabet and the ten digits. The whole process depended, of course, on her having a human intelligence, which only required stimulation, and her own interest in learning became keener as she progressed.
Dr Howe devoted himself with the utmost patience and assiduity to her education and was rewarded by increasing success. On July 24, 1839 she first wrote her own name legibly. On June 20, 1840 she had her first arithmetic lesson, with the aid of a metallic case perforated with square holes, square types being used; and in nineteen days she could add a column of figures amounting to thirty. She was in good health and happy, and was treated by Dr Howe as his daughter. Her case already began to interest the public, and others were brought to Dr Howe for treatment.
In 1841 Laura began to keep a journal, in which she recorded her own day's work and thoughts. In January 1842 Charles Dickens visited the Institution, and afterwards wrote enthusiastically in his American Notes of Howe's success with Laura. In 1843 funds were obtained for devoting a special teacher to her, and first Miss Swift, then Miss Wight, and then Miss Paddock, were appointed; Laura by this time was learning geography and elementary astronomy. By degrees she was given religious instruction, but Dr Howe was intent upon not inculcating dogma before she had grasped the essential beliefs of Christianity and the story of the Bible.
She grew up a happy, cheerful girl, loving, optimistic, but with a nervous system inclining to irritability, and requiring careful education in self-control. In 1860 her eldest sister Mary's death prompted a religious crisis, and through the influence of some of her family she was received into the Baptist church; she became more self-conscious and rather pietistic for some years after this. In 1867 she began writing compositions which she called poems; the best-known is called "Holy Home."
In 1872, Dr. Howe having been enabled to build some separate cottages (each under a matron) for the blind girls, Laura was moved from the larger house of the Institution into one of them, and there she continued her quiet life. The death of Howe in 1876 was a great grief to her; but before he died he had made arrangements by which she would be financially provided for in her home at the Institution for the rest of her life. She remained at the Institution, taking on household duties and teaching other pupils. In 1887 her jubilee was celebrated there, but in 1889 she was taken ill, and she died on May 24. She was buried at Dana Cemetery in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Her name became familiar as an example of the education of a deaf-blind person. Helen Keller's mother, Kate Keller, read Dickens' account and was inspired to seek advice which led to her hiring a teacher and former pupil of the same school, Anne Sullivan. Sullivan learned the manual alphabet from Bridgman which she took back to Helen, along with a doll that Bridgman had made for her.
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- Lamson, Mary Swift. Life and Education of Laura Dewey Bridgman, Boston, 1878.
- Jerusalem, Wilhelm. "Laura Bridgman. Education of a Deafblind. A Psychological Study", Vienna, 1890.
- Elliott, Maud Howe and Florence Howe Hall. Laura Bridgman: Dr. Howe's Famous Pupil and What He Taught Her, Boston, 1903.
- Hunter, Edith Fisher. Child of the Silent Night, 1963. ISBN 0-395-06835-5
- Gitter, Elisabeth. The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl, 2001. ISBN 0-374-11738-1
- Freeberg, Ernest. The Education of Laura Bridgman : First Deaf and Blind Person to Learn Language, 2001. ISBN 0-674-00589-9
- Richards, Laura E.. Laura Bridgman: The Story of an Opened Door, D. Appleton & Company. 1928.
- Hayward, John. "A Gazetteer of Massachusetts", Boston, 1847.
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- Laura Dewey Bridgman collection at The Leonard Axe Library, Pittsburg State University.
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- Laura Bridgman and the music taken from "Wilhelm Jerusalem - Helen Keller:'Letters'" Dokumentary Theatre by Herbert Gantschacher:
- [Laura E. Richards: Laura Bridgman: The Story of an Opened Door http://library.du.ac.in/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1/12411/Laura%20bridgman%20the%20story%20of%20an%20opened%20door%20%281928%29.pdf?sequence=1]