Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Bridgman, Laura Dewey

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BRIDGMAN, Laura Dewey, blind deaf-mute, b. in Hanover, N. H., 21 Dec., 1829; d. in Boston, Mass., 24 May, 1889. When she was two years old a severe illness deprived her of sight and hearing. Her sense of smell was also destroyed, and that of taste impaired. At the age of eight she was placed in the Perkins institution for the blind, at Boston, Mass., where the superintendent, Dr. Samuel G. Howe, undertook the difficult task of instructing her.

The first step was to teach her the names of objects, and this was done by putting into her hands some familiar article, together with its name in raised letters. When she had begun to realize that the words bore some relation to the objects, the former were given her alone, and it was found that she recognized them. The letters were then taken apart, and she was taught how to put them together to form the words. After she had learned many names in this way, type with raised letters were given her, with a board containing holes for their reception, and it afforded her great amusement to form with these materials the names of objects that were presented.

She was also taught the manual alphabet and its connection with the raised letters, so that when the name of a new object was spelled on her teacher's hands she would compose the same with her type. All this was done in three months. Laura never grew tired of learning, and Dr. Howe, after continuing for two years to teach her the names of objects, next tried to instruct her in their qualities and relations. The difficulties connected with each step having been surmounted by patience and perseverance, she was next taught to write with a lead-pencil. After this her studies were various.

She acquired a knowledge of arithmetic, of geography, which was taught by means of maps and globes in relief, and also learned to sew and to do household work. The statement that she learned to play on the piano is incorrect. She constantly thought, and asked questions about what she had learned. One day Dr. Howe, when asked who it was that had made land and sea, explained to her the character of God, and from this time her religious feelings became strongly developed.

Miss Bridgman taught in the Perkins institution with great success, and made it her home during the school session, spending the summers with her mother at Hanover, N. H. The facts in her life have been referred to by theologians, philosophers, and medical men all over the world, and her physical and mental condition is still of great interest. It is probable that when she came to Dr. Howe she was not quite so completely in the state of one blind from birth as he supposed. The modesty of her demeanor, which surprised him so, and the facility with which she learned, were doubtless due to the influence of the twenty-six months when she had full possession of her senses, though she was totally unable to remember anything that happened in that period.

She was so deaf that her hand was more sensitive to sonorous vibrations than her head, yet she was easily made dizzy by whirling, a fact that has been thought to contradict the hypothesis that the semicircular canal of the ear is the seat of giddiness. Her left eye was sensitive to a strong beam of light, which, however, only caused her pain. She was with difficulty able to form a mental picture involving space relations, and it required effort for her to tell, for instance, how many sides of an object were visible from one point.

An interesting peculiarity was her Homeric use of epithets. Her bed was always “easy” or “soft,” her room “cosey,” and the fire “nice” or “warm.” She was very neat in her dress and in the arrangement of her room, and, while regarding the rights of others, was tenacious of her own. She was very fond of “talking,” and often soliloquized in finger-language. Dr. Howe wrote, in 1873: “She enjoys life quite as much, probably more, than most persons do. She reads whatever book she finds in raised print, but especially the Bible. She makes much of her own clothing, and can run a sewing-machine. She seems happiest when she can find some person who knows the finger alphabet, and can sit and gossip with her about acquaintances, the news, and general matters. Her moral sense is well developed.” See “Life and Education of Laura Dewey Bridgman,” by her instructor, Mary S. Lamson (Boston, 1878).