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The Education of Laura Bridgman

The Education of Laura Bridgman

First Deaf and Blind Person to Learn Language

Ernest Freeberg

ISBN 9780674010055

Publication date: 10/15/2002

In the mid-nineteenth century, Laura Bridgman, a young child from New Hampshire, became one of the most famous women in the world. Philosophers, theologians, and educators hailed her as a miracle, and a vast public followed the intimate details of her life with rapt attention. This girl, all but forgotten today, was the first deaf and blind person ever to learn language.

Laura’s dark and silent life was transformed when she became the star pupil of the educational crusader Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. Against the backdrop of an antebellum Boston seething with debates about human nature, programs of moral and educational reform, and battles between conservative and liberal Christians, Ernest Freeberg tells this extraordinary tale of mentor and student, scientist and experiment.

Under Howe’s constant tutelage, Laura voraciously absorbed the world around her, learning to communicate through finger language, as well as to write with confidence. Her remarkable breakthroughs vindicated Howe’s faith in the power of education to overcome the most terrible of disabilities. In Howe’s hands, Laura’s education became an experiment that he hoped would prove his own controversial ideas about the body, mind, and soul.

Poignant and hopeful, The Education of Laura Bridgman is both a success story of how a sightless and soundless girl gained contact with an ever-widening world, and also a cautionary tale about the way moral crusades and scientific progress can compromise each other. Anticipating the life of Helen Keller a half-century later, Laura’s is a pioneering story of the journey from isolation to accomplishment, as well as a window onto what it means to be human under the most trying conditions.


  • There was a time in the 1840s when a bright, difficult, but above all, tragically afflicted girl named Laura Bridgman was one of the most famous people in the world… Bridgman has long been forgotten, overshadowed in the public memory by the more brilliant and articulate Helen Keller… If we had only the story of Bridgman and how she mastered language, including abstract language, that would already be interesting enough. [The Education of Laura Bridgman] provides a lucid explanation of the philosophical and religious stakes involved, an explanation that goes back to the pioneering explorations of human nature in 16th- and 17th-century Europe by Descartes, Locke, the Earl of Shaftsbury and others.

    —Richard Bernstein, New York Times


  • 2001, Winner of the John H. Dunning Prize


  • Ernest Freeberg is Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee.

Book Details

  • 272 pages
  • 5-3/4 x 8-7/8 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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