An image of Helen Keller v her teacher, ann Sullivan, in 1897. Keller learned come "lip read" through her hands.(Image credit: PhotoQuest/Getty)
Helen Keller was simply 19 months old in 1882 as soon as she arisen a mysterious illness that would rob she of her hearing and sight. Still, she would certainly go ~ above to discover to interact through signs, as well as read, write and speak. Today, 50 year after her fatality on June 1, 1968, she is remembered for being an accomplished author and also activist for world with disabilities, who persevered in the face of adversity.

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But what specifically caused the disease that left her deaf and also blind?

It transforms out that, despite the famousness that Keller"s case, no comprehensive medical evaluation has to be conducted, till now.


In the an initial analysis the its kind, a pediatric infectious-disease experienced has concluded the a most likely explanation for Keller"s deaf-blindness to be an infection through the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis that, in turn, brought about meningitis, or a ede of the linings the cover the mind and spinal cord.


It"s essential to note that doctors will never recognize for details exactly what disease "closed mine eyes and also ears and plunged me right into the unconsciousness the a new-born baby," as Keller later on wrote. Yet the explanation of bacterial meningitis is "where reasonable deduction would take you," said Dr. JanetGilsdorf, the writer of the evaluation and a professor emerita in the room of Pediatrics in ~ the university of Michigan clinical School. <10 secret Deaths and also Disappearances that Still Puzzle Historians>


A secret illness

Gilsdorf said she ended up being interested in what led to Keller"s deaf-blindness ~ she do the concern to she students throughout lectures about meningitis.

After one of those lectures, "I thought, what carry out we know about this? i grew an extremely curious around it," Gilsdorf said Live Science.

But when Gilsdorf learned the literature, she "found naught authoritative" on the topic. The explanations the did exist came from historians, not physicians or infectious-disease experts, and also most that these ideas "were means off-base indigenous a medical allude of view," Gilsdorf said.

Keller"s autobiography is also vague, saying that she emerged a suddenly fever, and also doctors called the illness "acute jam of the stomach and brain."

So Gilsdorf used a digital library database called the HathiTrust to testimonial the literature on what was recognized at the time around infectious illness that may have caused Keller"s deaf-blindness, and also what symptoms and complications patients arisen in the age prior to antibiotics. Her evaluation was published online may 5 in the newspaper Clinical infectious Diseases.

recognize a cause

Historical accounts frequently attribute Keller"s deaf-blindness to scarlet fever, condition that can occur in civilization with strep throat, and causes a rash and also fever. Yet this an illness does not cause deafness and also blindness, Gilsdorf said. "It"s hard to know where this reasoning comes from" that attributes her deafblindness come scarlet fever, she said. It"s true the the bacteria that cause scarlet fever, dubbed group A Streptococcus, can additionally cause meningitis. But even in the 1800s, meningitis together a complication that scarlet fever occurred rarely, and when the did happen, symptoms of meningitis were normally delayed, occurring much more than 3 weeks ~ scarlet heat symptoms appeared.

What"s more, scarlet heat was a known disease at the time, and also "Helen Keller’s physician very likely would have actually recognized scarlet heat if it came before meningitis," Gilsdorf wrote in she analysis.

Some historians have also attributed Keller"s illness to rubella, which can cause deafness and also blindness if babies room infected in the womb. If this happens, babies are born v these complications, but Keller to be healthy prior to her illness, Gilsdorf said.

Keller might have additionally had a condition that caused encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, but this likely would have caused severe brain damage and also led to intellectual disability, i beg your pardon didn"t occur in Keller"s case, Gilsdorf noted.

However, one infection with Neisseria meningitidis that brought about meningitis, recognized as meningococcal meningitis, appears to fit Keller"s symptoms and complications. The survival rate of this form of meningitis at the moment of Keller"s illness was roughly 30 to 40 percent. Human being with this illness can recuperate suddenly, which would fit Keller"s own summary of she recovery; she stated in she autobiography that "the heat left me together suddenly and also mysteriously together it had come." What"s more, a 1913 report top top 1,300 patients with this infection discovered that about 31 percent of patient survived, and also that among survivors, 45 lost their hearing, three shed their vision and also two shed both hearing and vision. This evidence suggests that meningococcal meningitis is "a credible cause of the condition that left Keller deaf and blind," Gilsdorf wrote.

But because other bacteria can likewise cause meningitis, could another microbe be to blame? There room two other species of bacteria as well as N. Meningitidis that commonly reason meningitis. One is Streptococcus pneumoniae, yet this epidemic was "uniformly fatal" at the time of Keller"s illness, Gilsdorf said. An additional is Haemophilus influenzae, i m sorry one study reported had a mortality price of approximately 97 percent in young kids at the moment of Keller"s illness, however could likewise cause hearing deactivated or blindness. Thus, although the survival price was low, H. Influenzae could additionally have possibly caused Keller"s illness, Gilsdorf said.

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Gilsdorf claimed she wishes her evaluation inspires civilization to think critically and dig depth into historical cases. She additionally hopes human being continue come remember Helen Keller. "She was a great, an excellent woman and highly accomplished despite every one of her disabilities," Gilsdorf said.