Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Diverse Communities
Best remembered as an educational innovator for the blind and deaf; a reformer for the humane treatment of the mentally ill, and an advocate for the integration of blacks during and after the Civil War, Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876) pursued philanthropic causes throughout his lifetime.

Biographical Highlights

Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876) pursued philanthropic causes throughout his lifetime—from doctoring the wounded in wartime to raising funds for European independence movements to advocacy for the disabled. Howe is best remembered as an innovator in education for the blind and deaf; a reformer of treatment for the mentally ill, and an advocate for the integration of blacks during and after the Civil War. In his twenties, he placed himself in harm's way to aid the Greeks in their fight for independence. A few years later, Howe worked to aid starving Polish refugees who were also fighting for independence. Directly after these events, he established the first school for the blind in the United States—Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. His involvement in advocacy and social reform in many areas continued until the time of his death.

Historic Roots

Little Samuel loved playing a good joke on someone. Known as a prankster throughout his schooling, Samuel Gridley Howe came to channel that energy into philanthropic work in his native Boston and elsewhere throughout the nineteenth century. Born on November 10, 1801, Howe grew up knowing what it was like to be an outsider. His father was an ardent Jeffersonian Democrat, which set the family apart in the strongly Federalist Boston area. The family was not wealthy; consequently, Howe attended the Latin School and Brown University, neither of which was considered first-rate learning institutions at the time. A mediocre student at best, he suffered no lack of ego and was suspended on several occasions due to problems in his behavior. In 1821, Howe entered Harvard medical school and soon went to study with Dr. Ingalls, a prominent Boston physician. In the medical profession Howe found his calling.

The tumultuous international events of the 1820s also were an allure for the new doctor. In 1828, Howe traveled to Greece to aid the patriotic army in their fight for Greek independence. He found the experience enthralling and was soon fully engulfed in the struggle, nursing the wounded, raising money for the poor, even traveling back to the U.S. to rally Americans around the Greek cause. It was at this point in time that Howe's philanthropic roots were firmly planted. During these excursions back to the States, he actively raised money for the war effort in Greece. These fund raising trips were extremely successful; Howe raised thousands of dollars and became a hero in his local community for his efforts.

His experiences in Greece and other parts of Europe led him, in 1831, to become interested in establishing a school for the blind. A figure of some prominence in Boston, Howe saw the establishment of a school as the way to bolster his self-worth while simultaneously helping an underrepresented group in society. All through his life, Howe would struggle to reconcile his great need for recognition and importance with an unnaturally low self-esteem.

Howe began the project by visiting France, England, and Germany to see how the blind were educated in those countries. Ideologically opposed to the methods he observed there, Howe decided to forge new territory in the education of the blind and the deaf. But, in 1832, Howe faced an obstacle far greater than how to run his school - imprisonment in Berlin. He was imprisoned by the Germans while trying to bring relief to starving Polish refugees during their war for independence. Released shortly thereafter, Howe returned to Boston even more a hero than when he left. Many citizens of the city had started to call him a philanthropist, a term loaded with respect and social status. At the time, philanthropy in Boston was an activity of the very elite. His elevation into a stratus of people served further to legitimate his burgeoning work with the blind and deaf.

Howe revolutionized the way that the blind and, to some degree, the deaf came to be educated. He began by printing books in Braille upon his return to Boston in 1832, the same year in which he officially started The Perkins School for the Blind. He quickly printed the Bible, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, and Pilgrim's Progress, among other works (Sanborn 1891). He also improved the Braille typeset, making it easier to decipher, and began to train teachers to instruct students on the use of Braille books and other learning materials. Within a few years, Howe could boast that groups of "missionaries" educated at his institution were teaching blind and deaf students all over the U.S.

In 1843, Howe married Julia Ward. Between 1851 and 1853 they co-edited Commonwealth, a Boston newspaper devoted to the antislavery movement. Julia was a published and well-respected writer in her own right. Together they had five children. Though, theirs was a stormy marriage; the two often lived apart for months at a time while Howe traveled the U.S. on speaking tours. These tours encompassed many topics, among them Howe's opposition to the Mexican War. Howe was a Whig by 1845 and also strongly opposed slavery.

He became somewhat of a crusader for prison reform, too, especially when those imprisoned were fugitive slaves.

Howe increasingly lobbied for the abolition of slavery. As the Civil War approached, he wondered how best to contribute to the Union cause. Being too old to work in the army hospitals at the age of sixty, he decided to work with the Emancipation League, a group he had helped to found in Boston some time before. That group supported the enlistment of African American troops during the War and took up the cause of black education after the War. Howe simultaneously served on the U.S. Sanitary commission, lobbying for more health officers and better troop hygiene.

Howe additionally began to study the effects of institutionalization on the mentally ill. Suffering himself from lifelong depression, he was compelled to change what he saw as a flawed system. He determined that the large, state-run housing offered for the insane was wholly inadequate and, in fact, harmful to those in its care. Instead, Howe advocated for smaller housing units that focused on achieving independence for residents. He took the family as a model for charity and felt that the state-run institutions should be as parents to the mentally ill, helping those offspring to grow up and prepare for the real world, whether they reached that world or not. In 1865, Howe became the chairman of the Massachusetts Board of State Charities - the first board of its kind in the U.S.—and used the position as a platform to lobby for further housing reformation for the poor and insane (Spartacus 2002).

Howe did not forget his original desire to revolutionize the way the blind were taught. Throughout the middle part of the nineteenth century, Howe continued to study the most effective way to educate blind and deaf students. His greatest challenge, and arguably his greatest success, came in the form of Miss Laura Bridgman. Both blind and deaf since the age of two, Miss Bridgman presented a unique set of problems for Howe. Howe never believed in using sign language; he thought signs were too abstract to convey actual meaning to a deaf or blind and deaf person. Instead, he advocated for the use of finger spelling, where each word is spelled out into the hand of the deaf and blind person in order to convey a sentence or idea. Miss Bridgman eventually learned how to finger spell and became a prolific Braille reader. She was never, however, able to live on her own or interact with the seeing and deaf society. In that way, she did not fulfill the goals set out by Howe for his pupils.


Many of Howe's expectations went unfulfilled, mostly because he set goals that were unrealistic. He wanted to teach blind and deaf children according to their talents; in that way, he revolutionized their education by making these children more than the sum of their disabilities. He sought to narrow the gap between the blind and the sighted in society, a goal which he did achieve. But, he ultimately wanted blind, deaf, and mentally ill children to learn how to function fully in society, which was impossible. As the children matured into adults, they simply had too many differences with "normal" society to be able to be fully integrated.

Even though many of his dreams were not realized, Samuel Gridley Howe will be remembered for his innovation in the areas of education for the blind and deaf, reformation of treatment for the mentally ill, and integration of blacks during and after the Civil War. He died in Boston in 1876 of a brain tumor. Interestingly, Howe left nothing to his wife and only $2,000 to Laura Bridgman in order that she be taken care of for the rest of her life at the Perkins School for the Blind (Gitter 2001).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The philanthropic sector as we know it today was not yet firmly established in the U.S. at the time of Howe's death. None of the organizations or political parties with whom or for which he worked still exist. Numerous contemporary nonprofit organizations, however, have taken up the causes of advocacy for the blind, deaf, and mentally ill (see Related Nonprofit Organizations section to follow).

Key Related Ideas

  • Abolition
  • Emancipation League: A group that supported the enlistment of African American troops during the War and took up the cause of black education after the War.
  • Greek independence
  • Mental health reform
  • Polish independence
  • Prison reform
  • Whig party: An early American party formed in the early to mid-1800s to oppose the Democratic party. The topic of slavery divided the Whigs and eventually split the party.

Although Howe did not initiate a formal movement to school the blind or deaf, his immense advocacy work and founding of the Perkins School raised a new level of awareness for the education of those on the margins of society.

Important People Related to the Topic

Laura Bridgman (1892-1904). As Howe's most famous pupil, Miss Bridgman sometimes traveled the country, making public appearances to help people understand the world of a deaf and blind person. Her name and Howe's are inextricably linked, for without him, she might have never learned to communicate with the world beyond her rural birthplace in New Hampshire.

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910). Mrs. Howe believed strongly in the rights of blacks and women, a reflection of her progressive upbringing in New York City. She is most famous for writing "Battle Hymn of the Republic;" her popularity eclipsed that of her husband immediately after its publication. She actively participated in the women's rights movement and was the first woman elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

American Council of the Blind is a leading organization of the blind and visually impaired in America. ACB "strives to improve the well-being of all blind and visually impaired people by: serving as a representative national organization of blind people; elevating the social, economic and cultural levels of blind people; improving educational and rehabilitation facilities and opportunities; cooperating with the public and private institutions and organizations concerned with blind services; encouraging and assisting all blind persons to develop their abilities and conducting a public education program to promote greater understanding of blindness and the capabilities of blind people" (ACB 2003). The organization has "tens of thousands" of members and state and regional affiliates.

National Federation of the Blind, founded in 1940, is the country's largest membership organization of the blind. Its nearly fifty thousand members are active in 700 local chapters across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. NFB's purpose is "to help blind persons achieve self-confidence and self-respect and to act as a vehicle for collective self-expression by the blind" (NFB 2003).

Perkins School for the Blind, established in 1832 by Howe, was named after Thomas Perkins, a trustee and generous benefactor. As the school grew, Perkins donated proceeds from the sale of his home to help renovate an old hotel for the school's third location. The mission of the school is to help "children and adults who are blind, visually handicapped, deafblind, and multihandicapped reach their greatest possible independence" (Perkins School for the Blind 2003). Among the school's students were Laura Bridgman, the first deafblind person in the U.S. to be schooled, and Hellen Kellar. Charles Dickens visited, wrote about the school and had one of his books printed into Braille by the school's large printing department. Perkins is now located on a 38-acre site in Watertown, Massachusetts.


American Council of the Blind. Organizational Profile.  https://www.acb.org/profile.html.

Gitter, Elizabeth. The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001. ISBN: 0374117381.

Grant, Mary Hetherington. Private Woman, Public Person: An Account of the Life of Julia Ward Howe from 1819-1868. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Publishing, 1994.

National Federation of the Blind. About the NFB.  https://nfb.org//nfb/About_the_NFB.asp?SnID=737112313.

Perkins School for the Blind. History.  http://www.perkins.pvt.k12.ma.us/section.php?id=53.

Sanborn, F.B. Dr. S. G. Howe: The Philanthropist. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1891.

Schwartz, Harold. Samuel Gridley Howe, Social Reformer, 1801-1876. Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 1956.

Spartacus Educational. Samuel Gridley Howe.  http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAShoweG.htm.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.