Samuel Gridley Howe

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Samuel Gridley Howe (November 10, 1801 - January 9, 1876) was a prominent 19th century United States physician, abolitionist, advocate of education for the blind and husband of Julia Ward Howe.

Howe was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Joseph N. Howe, was a ship-owner and cordage manufacturer; and his mother, Patty Gridley, was one of the most beautiful women of her day. Young Howe was educated at Boston and at Brown University, Providence, and in 1821 began to study medicine in Boston. But fired by enthusiasm for the Greek Revolution and by Byron's example, he was no sooner qualified and admitted to practice than he abandoned these prospects and took ship for Greece, where he joined the army and spent six years of hardship amid scenes of warfare. Then, to raise funds for the cause, he returned to America; his fervid appeals enabled him to collect about $60,000, which he spent on provisions and clothing, and he established a relief depot near Aegina, where he started works for the refugees, the existing quay, or American Mole, being built in this way. He formed another colony of exiles on the Isthmus of Corinth. He wrote a History of the Greek Revolution, which was published in 1828.

In 1831 he returned to America. Here a new object of interest engaged him. Through his friend Dr John Dix Fisher (d.1850), a Boston physician who had started a movement there as early as 1826 for establishing a school for the blind, he had learnt of the similar school founded in Paris by Valeritin Hauy. It was proposed to Howe by a committee organized by Fisher that he should direct the establishment of a “New England Asylum for the Blind” at Boston. He took up the project with characteristic ardour, and set out at once for Europe to investigate the problem. There he was temporarily diverted from his task by becoming mixed up with the Polish revolt, and, in pursuit of a mission to carry American contributions across the Prussian frontier, he was arrested and imprisoned at Berlin, but was at last released through the intervention of the American minister at Paris.

Returning to Boston in July 1832, he began receiving a few blind children at his father’s house in Pleasant Street, and thus sowed the seed which grew into the famous Perkins Institution. In January 1833 the funds available were all spent, but so much progress had been shown that the legislature voted $óooo, later increased to $30,000 a year, to the institution on condition that it should educate gratuitously twenty poor blind from the state; money was also contributed from Salem and Boston. Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins, a prominent Boston trader in slaves, furs, and opiums, then presented his mansion and grounds in Pearl Street for the school to be held there in perpetuity. This building being later found unsuitable, Colonel Perkins consented to its sale, and in 1839 the institution was moved to the former Mount Washington House Hotel in South Boston. It was henceforth known as the "Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum (or, since 1877, School) for the Blind".

Howe was director, and the life and soul of the school; he opened a printing-office and organized a fund for printing for the blind — the first done in America; and he was unwearied in calling public attention to tile work. The Institution, through him, became one of the intellectual centres of American philanthropy, and by degrees obtained more and more financial support. In 1837, Howe brought Laura Bridgman, to the school, a young deaf-blind girl who later became a teacher at the school. She became famous as the first known deaf-blind person to be successfully educated.

Howe also brought about the establishment of the Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children (later renamed the Walter E. Fernald State School), the Western Hemisphere’s oldest publicly-funded institution serving the mentally disabled. He founded the school in 1848 with a $2,500 appropriation from the Massachusetts Legislature. For nearly a century the school was viewed as a model educational facility for the congenitally retarded, but after 1950 it fell into much disrepute due to unconscionable conditions for the incarcerated children and a series of unethical radiological experiments performed upon some boys.


  • The Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe, Edited by His Daughter Laura E. Richards

Volume I - The Greek Revolution

Volume II - The Servant of Humanity

External link