Samuel Gridley Howe was born on November 22, 1801 in Boston, Massachusetts to Joseph N. Howe, a maker of rope for ships that sailed out of the Boston Harbor, and Martha Gridley Howe. The middle child of two brothers and four sisters, Howe attended the elementary schools of Boston and the college preparatory school of the Reverend Joseph Richardson. In 1821 he graduated from Brown University where he had the reputation of being a better prankster than student, and in 1824 he completed his medical education at the Harvard Medical College. Soon thereafter he left for Greece where for the next six years he participated in that nation’s war of independence from the Turks. Supplying letters about the war to North American newspapers, Howe also served as a physician to the Greek army and navy, and after the war’s end, secured provisions from Americans that he distributed to the war-torn Greek citizenry.
First School for the Blind
After Howe’s return to the United States in 1831, the trustees of Massachusetts’ newly chartered school for the blind, the first of its kind in the nation, appointed Howe as their director. Not long thereafter Howe sailed to Europe to observe schools for the blind, returning in 1832 to open the blind school in Boston. First gaining regional fame by exhibiting his educated pupils throughout New England, Howe extended his own notoriety and that of his school to a worldwide audience after the blind and deaf girl, Laura Bridgman, entered the school in 1837. Under his direction, Laura learned to communicate through finger spelling and writing. The 1842 observations of Charles Dickens that he recorded in his American Notes only added to Bridgman’s fame and to the fame of her educator. Before long, the Perkins Institution, the name that the blind school acquired after a bequest from the Boston merchant, Thomas H. Perkins, became a place that thousands of Americans and Europeans were likely to visit.
In 1843 Howe, while a member of the Massachusetts legislature, championed Dorothea Dix’s “Memorial to the Legislature” that called public attention to the inhumane conditions of mentally ill people in the state’s almshouses and jails. In the same year, he married the New Yorker Julia Ward. On their honeymoon in Europe, Howe toured charitable institutions, schools, and prisons, and met, among other people, Florence Nightingale, who credited him with first encouraging her to enter the profession of nursing.
Back in Boston in 1845, Howe found himself caught up in controversies over public school reform where, along with his friend Horace Mann, he championed an anti-Calvinist model of education, one that held that teachers’ kindly guidance rather than their punitive threats or their resorts to corporal punishment made for better student learning. Not long thereafter, he also stirred controversy by advocating for the Philadelphia, or solitary-confinement model of prisoner incarceration before the Boston Prison Disciple Society. In 1847 he became a founding member of the Boston Society for Aiding Discharged Convicts. The next year he received both public praise and ridicule after he convinced Massachusetts lawmakers to fund the first residential school for “idiots.” Finally, throughout his life, he supported the education of deaf pupils in lip reading and oral communications. Opposed to signing, or what he called manualism, Howe believed that the only way for deaf people to be integrated into society was through oral communication.
During the 1830s and 1840s Howe developed the Perkins Institution for the Blind from a state to a regional institution. Then beyond New England, he traveled with his blind pupils west to Ohio and Kentucky, and as far south as Georgia. In these regions, Howe’s words along with the demonstrations of his students’ skills in reading, writing, and musical performance led legislators to establish public facilities for educating the blind in their own states. In 1836 and again in 1842, his pupils showed their talents before an adoring U.S. Congress. Although he attempted to persuade Congress to appropriate funds for a national library for the blind, Howe’s hope for such a library was never realized.
Although he had written against slavery as early as 1833, Howe only became involved in Boston antislavery activities in 1846 when, along with other opponents of slavery like his friend Charles Sumner, he formed the Boston Vigilance Committee. Concerned with the abduction of fugitive slaves the Committee came together to protect former slaves from southern slave catchers. Soon known as Conscience Whigs, most members of the Committee represented so-called political abolitionists, those who unlike their contemporaries, the followers of William Lloyd Garrison, worked through political institutions to end slavery. In November 1846 Howe ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Conscience Whig. With the passage of the Fugitive Slavery Act in 1850, his anti-slavery activities increased and intensified as his break from Daniel Webster and Cotton Whigs – Whigs who were sympathetic to Southern slavery – became final.
Between 1851 and 1853 Howe became the editor of the Boston Commonwealth. Along with his wife, Howe used the newspaper to champion the cause of Free Soil anti-slavery. In 1854, he joined the New England Emigrant Aid Company that provided assistance to northerners who had migrated to Kansas to keep the territory free of slavery. Later that year, the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act solidified what became Howe’s decade-long involvement in Kansas politics. Traveling to the state in 1856, Howe began his acquaintance with the abolitionist, John Brown. In 1858 and 1859 this acquaintance developed into Howe’s membership in the Secret Six, a group of anti-slavery campaigners who provided Brown funding and arms that he later used in his 1859 raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.
Post-Civil War Years
Howe spent the Civil War years as a member of both the United States Sanitary Commission and the American Freemen’s Inquiry Committee, and in 1864 became the chair of the Massachusetts State Board of Charities. During this time Howe also advocated for the decentralization of services for the blind and for people with intellectual disability. To this end, he championed the boarding out of his school’s pupils in the homes of ordinary citizens. Howe died in 1876.