Laura Dewey Bridgman (1829-1889), American blind deaf-mute, was born on the 21st of December 1829 at Hanover, New Hampshire, U.S.A., being the third daughter of Daniel Bridgman (d. 1868), a substantial Baptist farmer, and his wife Harmony, daughter of Cushman Downer, and grand-daughter of Joseph Downer, one of the five first settlers (1761) of Thetford, Vermont. Laura was a delicate infant, puny and rickety, and was subject to fits up to twenty months old, but otherwise seemed to have normal senses; at two years, however, she had a very bad attack of scarlet fever, which destroyed sight and hearing, blunted the sense of smell, and left her system a wreck. Though she gradually recovered health she remained a blind deaf-mute, but was kindly treated and was in particular made a sort of playmate by an eccentric bachelor friend of the Bridgmans, Mr Asa Tenney, who as soon as she could walk used to take her for rambles a-field. In 1837 Mr James Barrett, of Dartmouth College, saw her and mentioned her case to Dr Mussey, the head of the medical department, who wrote an account which attracted the attention of Dr S.G. Howe (q.v.), the head of the Perkins Institution for the Blind at Boston. He determined to try to get the child into the Institution and to attempt to educate her; her parents assented, and in October 1837 Laura entered the school.
Though the loss of her eye-balls occasioned some deformity, she was otherwise a comely child and of a sensitive and affectionate nature; she had become familiar with the world about her, and was imitative in so far as she could follow the actions of others; but she was limited in her communication with others to the narrower uses of touch - patting her head meant approval, rubbing her hand disapproval, pushing one way meant to go, drawing another to come. Her mother, preoccupied with house-work, had already ceased to be able to control her, and her father's authority was due to fear of superior force, not to reason. Dr Howe at once set himself to teach her the alphabet by touch. It is impossible, for reasons of space, to describe his efforts in detail. He taught words before the individual letters, and his first experiment consisting in pasting upon several common articles such as keys, spoons, knives, etc., little paper labels with the names of the articles printed in raised letters, which he got her to feel and differentiate; then he gave her the same labels by themselves, which she learnt to associate with the articles they referred to, until, with the spoon or knife alone before her she could find the right label for each from a mixed heap.
The next stage was to give her the component letters and teach her to combine them in the words she knew, and gradually in this way she learnt all the alphabet and the ten digits, etc. The whole process depended, of course, on her having a human intelligence, which only required stimulation, and her own interest in learning became keener as she progressed. On the 24th of July 1839 she first wrote her own name legibly. Dr Howe devoted himself with the utmost patience and assiduity to her education and was rewarded by increasing success. On the 20th of June 1840 she had her first arithmetic lesson, by the aid of a metallic case perforated with square holes, square types being used; and in nineteen days she could add a column of figures amounting to thirty. She was in good health and happy, and was treated by Dr Howe as his daughter. Her case already began to interest the public, and others were brought to Dr Howe for treatment. In 1841 Laura began to keep a journal, in which she recorded her own day's work and thoughts.
In January 1842 Charles Dickens visited the Institution, and afterwards wrote enthusiastically in American Notes of Dr Howe's success with Laura. In 1843 funds were obtained for devoting a special teacher to her, and first Miss Swift, then Miss Wight, and then Miss Paddock, were appointed; Laura by this time was learning geography and elementary astronomy. By degrees she was given religious instruction, but Dr Howe was intent upon not inculcating dogma before she had grasped the essential moral truths of Christianity and the story of the Bible. She grew up a gay, cheerful girl, loving, optimistic, but with a nervous system inclining to irritability, and requiring careful education in self-control. In 1860 her eldest sister Mary's death helped to bring on a religious crisis, and through the influence of some of her family she was received into the Baptist church; she became for some years after this more self-conscious and rather pietistic. In 1867 she began writing compositions which she called poems; the best-known is called "Holy Home." In 1872, Dr Howe having been enabled to build some separate cottages (each under a matron) for the blind girls, Laura was moved from the larger house of the Institution into one of them, and there she continued her quiet life.
The death of Dr Howe in 1876 was a great grief to her; but before he died he had made arrangements by which she would be financially provided for in her home at the Institution for the rest of her life. In 1887 her jubilee was celebrated there, but in 1889 she was taken ill, and she died on the 24th of May. She was buried at Hanover. Her name has become familiar everywhere as an example of the education of a blind deaf-mute, leading to even greater results in Helen Keller.
See Laura Bridgman, by Maud Howe and Florence Howe Hall (1903), which contains a bibliography; and Life and Education of Laura Dewey Bridgman (1878), by Mary S. Lamson.