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Samuel Gridley Howe
File:Samuel Gridley Howe.jpg
Born November 10, 1801(1801-11-10)
Boston, Massachusetts
Died Template:Dda
Occupation physician, abolitionist

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

Early life and education[]

Howe was born in Pearl St., Boston, Massachusetts.[1] His father, Joseph Neals Howe, was a ship-owner and cordage manufacturer.[2] His mother, Patty Gridley, was considered to be one of the most beautiful women of her day.[1]

Howe was educated at Boston Latin School, where he was cruelly treated, and even beaten, according to his daughter.[3] Laura (Howe) Richards later wrote: “So far as I can remember, my father had no pleasant memories of his school days."[3]

Boston in the early 19th Century was a hotbed of political foment. Howe’s father was a Democrat who considered Harvard University a den of Federalists, and refused to allow his sons to enter the university.[3] Accordingly, in 1818, Howe's father had him enrolled at Brown University.[4] Most of his time there was spent engaged in practical jokes and other hijinx and, years later, Howe told his children that he regretted that he hadn’t more seriously applied himself to his studies.[4] One of his classmates, a future president of Brown University, Dr. Caswell, described Howe in this way, “He showed mental capabilities which would naturally fit him for fine scholarship. His mind was quick, versatile, and inventive. I do not think he was deficient in logical power, but the severer studies did not seem to be congenial to him.[5] After graduating from Brown in 1821, Howe attended Harvard Medical School, taking his degree in 1824.[6]

Greek Revolution[]

Howe didn't remain in Massachusetts for long after graduating. In 1824, shortly after Howe was certified to practice medicine, fired by enthusiasm for the Greek Revolution, by the example of his idol Lord Byron, and fleeing the memory of an unhappy love affair, Howe sailed for Greece, where he joined the Greek army as a surgeon.[7][8]

In Greece his services were not confined to the duties of a surgeon, but were of a more military nature, and his bravery, enthusiasm, and ability as a commander, as well as his humanity, won for Howe the title "the Lafayette of the Greek Revolution."[9] Howe returned to America in 1827, to raise funds and supplies to help alleviate the famine and suffering in Greece.[10] Howe's fervid appeals enabled him to collect about $60,000 which he spent on provisions, clothing, and the establishment of a relief depot for refugees near Aegina.[10] He later formed another colony for exiles on the Isthmus of Corinth. Afterwards, Howe wrote an account of the revolt, Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution, which was published in 1828.[11]

After leaving Greece, Howe continued his medical studies in Paris, where his enthusiasm for a republican form of government led him to take part in the July Revolution.[12]

Work for the blind[]

In 1831 he returned to America. Here a new object of interest engaged him. Through his friend Dr. John Dix Fisher, a Boston physician who had started a movement there as early as 1826 for establishing a school for the blind, he had learned of a similar school founded in Paris by Valentin Haüy. 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 ardor, and set out at once for Europe to investigate the problem.[13] There he was temporarily diverted from his task by becoming mixed up with the Polish revolt. He became chairman of the American-Polish Committee at Paris, organized by himself, J. Fenimore Cooper, S. F. B. Morse, and several other Americans living in the city, for the purpose of giving relief to the Polish political refugees who had crossed over the Prussian border into Prussia.[14] Dr. Howe undertook to distribute the supplies and funds personally and while in Berlin he was arrested and imprisoned, but was released after five weeks through the intervention of the American minister at Paris.[15]

File:Perkins School.jpg

Perkins School, prior to 1915

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.[13] In January 1833 the funds available were all spent, but so much progress had been shown that the legislature approved funding, 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 opium, 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 to the school Laura Bridgman, a young deaf-blind girl who later became a teacher at the school.[16] She became famous as the first known deaf-blind person to be successfully educated.

Dr. Howe himself was the originator of many improvements in method as well as in the process of printing books in Braille.[13] Besides acting as superintendent of the Perkins Institution to the end of his life, he was instrumental in establishing a large number of institutions of a similar character throughout the country.

Marriage and family[]

On 23 April 1843 he married Julia Ward, the daughter of wealthy New York banker Samuel Ward and Julia Rush Cutler.[17] Julia was an ardent supporter of abolition and was later active in the cause of Woman's Suffrage. She composed the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

They had a passionate and stormy marriage.[18] Julia wrote in her diary of Dr. Howe (whom she referred to as "Chev"):

Chev is one of the characters based upon opposition. While I always seem to work for an unseen friend, he always sees an armed adversary and nerves himself accordingly. So all our lives turn on what I may call moral or personal fiction...[19] At one point Samuel requested a legal separation, but Julia refused.[18]

Many of their arguments centered on Julia’s desire to have a career apart from motherhood.[20] While Dr. Howe was in many ways quite progressive by the standards of the day, he did not support the idea of married women having any work other than that of wife and mother, and he firmly believed that Julia's proper place was in the home.[20][21]

The couple had six children: Julia Romana Howe (1844-1886) married Michael Anagnos, a Greek scholar who succeeded Dr. Howe as director of the Perkins Institute[22]; Florence Marion Howe (1845-1922), an author, she wrote a well-known treatise on manners and was married to lawyer David Prescott Hall; Henry Marion Howe (1848-1922), a metallurgist who lived in New York; Laura Elizabeth Howe (1850-1943), a Pulitzer prize-winning author[23], she was married to Henry Richards and lived in Maine; Maud Howe (1855-1948), a Pulitzer prize-winning author[23], she was married to an English muralist and illustrator, John Elliott; Samuel Gridley Howe, Jr. (1858-1863).

The two oldest daughters, Laura and Florence, were closest to their father and defended his opposition to Julia's activities outside the home.[24] Ironically, Florence would later take up her mother's mantle as a committed suffragette, making public speeches on the subject and authoring the book Julia Ward Howe and the Woman Suffrage Movement (1913).[25][26]

Antislavery activities[]

He entered publicly into the antislavery struggle for the first time in 1846, when as a "Conscience Whig", he was an unsuccessful candidate for Congress against Robert C. Winthrop.[9] He was one of the founders of an antislavery newspaper, the Boston Daily Commonwealth, which he edited (1851-1853) with the assistance of his wife, Julia Ward Howe.[27] He was a prominent member of the Kansas Committee in Massachusetts, and with Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, George Luther Stearns, Theodore Parker, and Gerrit Smith, was interested in the plans of John Brown. Although he disapproved of the attack upon Harper's Ferry, Howe nevertheless funded John Brown's work as a member of the Secret Six.[28] After Brown's arrest, Howe temporarily fled to Canada to escape prosecution.[28]

According to Samuel Howe’s daughter, Florence Hall, the Howe’s South Boston home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.[29] This is uncertain, but it is known that Dr. Howe vehemently opposed the Fugitive Slave Law. Two incidents clearly demonstrate this. The first occurred in 1850, when Dr. Howe along with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker and other abolitionists, stormed Faneuil Hall in order to try to free a captured escaped slave, Anthony Burns. Burns was going to be sent back to his slave owner in Virginia in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Law.[30] The abolitionists hoped to rescue Burns from that fate. Howe declared outside the hall that “No man’s freedom is safe until all men are free,[30] and shortly afterward the abolitionists stormed the hall, breaking through the door with a battering ram. A deputy was accidentally shot in the ensuing fracas.[30] Federal Troops finally put an end to the attempted raid and Burns was returned to Virginia.[30] The men didn’t abandon Burns, however, and within in a year of Burns' capture they had raised enough money to purchase Burns’ freedom from his slave owner.[30]

In another violation of the Fugitive Slave Law, in October 1854, with the help of Capt. Austin Bearse and the Captain’s brother, Dr. Howe rescued an escaped slave[31] who had come into Boston Harbor from Jacksonville, FL, as a stowaway aboard the brig Cameo.[32] The Boston Vigilance Committee then helped the man evade slave-catchers and reach freedom.[32]

In 1863, Dr. Howe returned to Canada in order to interview former slaves who had settled there after fleeing on the Underground Railroad.[33] Life in Canada wasn’t free from the bigotry that Freedmen and women experienced in the Northern Eastern United States.[33] However, Howe wrote that overall their lives had improved, as they were now free to earn a living, marry, attend school and church out of the reach of slave-catchers.[33] An account of his interviews and experiences were published in 1864, The Refugees from Slavery in Canada West.

Civil War and Reconstruction[]

During the Civil War Howe was one of the directors of the Sanitary Commission. The goal of the Sanitary Commission was to improve hygiene standards and prevent outbreaks of disease at Union Camps, which were breeding grounds for illnesses like dysentery, typhoid and malaria.[34]

At the close of the Civil War, Dr. Howe entered into the work of the Freedmen's Bureau.[35] His work with the Freemen’s Bureau served as an extension of his work as an abolitionist. It was the job of the Freedmen’s Bureau to help house, feed, clothe, educate and provide medical care to newly freed slaves in the South after the Civil War.[36][37] In some instances it would also attempt to aid Freedmen, as the emancipated slaves were then called, locate and reunite with relatives who had either fled north or who had been sold away during slavery.[38]

Philanthropic activities[]

Dr. Howe, working with Dorothea Dix, also brought about the establishment of the Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children (later renamed the Walter E. Fernald State School),[39][40] 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.[39] Idiot was at that time considered a polite term for individuals with mental and intellectual disabilities. Dr. Howe was successful in his attempt to educate the mentally disabled, but this led to other problems, as many then argued that the disabled did so well in schools like Dr. Howe's that they should remain permanently incarcerated there.[40] Dr. Howe was opposed to this, arguing that the mentally disabled had rights and that segregating them from the rest of society would be detrimental.[40]

In 1866, Howe gave the keynote address at the opening of the New York State Institution for the Blind at Batavia, NY, and shocked the audience by warning about the dangers of segregation based on disability: "We should be cautious about establishing such artificial communities...for any children and youth; but more especially should we avoid them for those who have natural infirmity...Such persons spring up sporadically in the community, and they should be kept diffused among sound and normal persons...Surround insane and excitable persons with sane people and ordinary influences; vicious children with virtuous people and virtuous influences; blind children with those who see; mute children with those who speak; and the like..."[41]

He was the originator of the State Board of Charities of Massachusetts, in 1863, the first board of the sort in America, and was its chairman from that time until 1874.[42]

He made a last trip to Greece in 1866, to carry relief to the Cretan refugees during the Cretan Revolution.[43]

Final years and death[]

Samuel Howe remained active and politically involved until the end of his life.

In 1865, Dr. Howe openly advocated a progressive tax system, which he referred to as a "sliding scale of taxation proportionate to income." [44] He stated that the wealthy would resist this, but explained that America could not become a truly just society while the gap between rich and poor remained so cavernous. Emancipating the slaves and charity work alone were not enough, he insisted, to bridge the inequities, "so long as the labors and drudgery of the world is thrown actively upon one class, while another class is entirely exempt from it. There is a radical injustice in it. And injustice in society is like a rotten timber in the foundation of a house."[44]

In 1870 he was a member of the commission sent by President Grant to inquire into the practicability of the annexation of Santo Domingo. President Grant wished to annex the island. He was opposed in this effort by Dr. Howe’s old friend and fellow abolitionist, Sen.Charles Sumner.[45] In the end, the committee sided with Sumner in opposition to the proposed annexation.[45] Grant was so enraged at having his plans thwarted that he engineered to have Sumner removed from his chairmanship as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.[45]


Grave of Samuel Gridley Howe in Mount Auburn Cemetery

Samuel Gridley Howe died January 9, 1876. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.


  • F. B. Sanborn, Dr. S. G. Howe, American Philanthropist (Neww York, 1891)
  • L. E. Richards (editor), Letters and Journals (two volumes, Boston 1906-09)
  • L. E. Richards, Two Noble Lives (Boston, 1911)
  • L. E. Richards, Samuel Gridley Howe (Boston, 1935)
  • Harold Schwartz, Samuel Gridley Howe, Social Reformer, 1801-1876 (Harvard Univ. Press, 1956)

a light in the dark the life of samuel gridley howe written by: milton meltzer

Notes and references[]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Richards, Laura E. (Howe). Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe, page 13. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1909.
  2. Richards, Laura E. (Howe). "Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe", page 14. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1909.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Richards, Laura E. (Howe). Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe, page 14. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1909.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Richards, Laura E. (Howe). Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe, page 15. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1909.
  5. Richards, Laura E. (Howe). Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe, page 17. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1909.
  6. Richards, Laura E. (Howe). Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe, pp. 19-20. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1909.
  7. Richards, Laura E. (Howe). Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe, pages 21-26. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1909.
  8. Richards, Laura E. Two Noble Lives, Page 14. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1911.
  9. 9.0 9.1 New International Encyclopedia
  10. 10.0 10.1 Richards, Laura E. (Howe). Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe, pages 279. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1909.
  11. Richards, Laura E. (Howe). Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe, pages 278. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1909.
  12. Schwartz, Harold. Samuel Gridley Howe, Social Reformer, 1801-1876: Social Reformer, 1801-1876, Page 38. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1956.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Hall, Emily M. Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Accessed 25 Jan 2008.
  14. Richards, Laura E. Two Noble Lives, Page 23. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1911.
  15. Richards, Laura E. Two Noble Lives, Page 24-29. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1911.
  16. Richards, Laura E. Two Noble Lives, Page 32. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1911.
  17. Ziegler, Valarie H. ‘Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe,’’ page 31. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003
  18. 18.0 18.1 Venet, Wendy Hamand. Neither Ballots Nor Bullets: Women Abolitionists and the Civil War, page 95. University of Virginia Press, 1991
  19. Ziegler, Valarie H. ‘Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe,’’ page 107. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003
  20. 20.0 20.1 Ziegler, Valarie H. ‘Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe,’’ page 8. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003
  21. Ziegler, Valarie H. ‘Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe,’’ page 27. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003
  22. Ziegler, Valarie H. ‘Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe,’’ page 141. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003
  23. 23.0 23.1 Ziegler, Valarie H. ‘Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe,’’ page 11. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003
  24. Ziegler, Valarie H. ‘Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe,’’ page 103. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003
  25. Hall, Florence Howe. Julia Ward Howe and the Woman Suffrage Movement. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1913.
  26. Hall, Florence Howe. Memories Grave and Gay, Pages 269-270. New York: Harper & Bros., 1918
  27. Hall, Emily M. Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Accessed 24 Jan 2008.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Linder, Douglas. The Trial of John Brown: The Secret Six, Accessed 24 Jan 2009.
  29. Silber, Irwin. Songs of the Civil War, Page 10. New York: Courier Dover Publications, 1995
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 30.3 30.4 Walther, Eric H. The Shattering of the Union, Page 47-48 Rowman & Littlefield, 2004
  31. Bartlett, Irving H. Wendell Phillips, Brahmin Radical, Page 184. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973
  32. 32.0 32.1 Siebert, Wilbur H. The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, Page 81. London: MacMillan & Co., 1898
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 Calarco, Tom. The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region, Page 121. New York: McFarland, 2004
  34. Adams, George Worthington. ‘’Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War.’’ Louisiana State University Press, 1996
  35. Richards, Laura E. (Howe). Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe, page 479. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, 1909.
  36. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, Augusta County, Virginia.
  37. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, Augusta County, Virginia.
  38. Harrison, Robert. ‘’Welfare and Employment Policies of the Freedmen's Bureau in the District of Columbia,’’ Journal of Southern History. (1 Feb 2006) Accessed 25 January 2009.
  39. 39.0 39.1 Mitchell, Martha. Encyclopedia Brunoniana , Accessed 24 Jan 2009.
  40. 40.0 40.1 40.2 Pfeiffer, David. Samuel Gridley Howe and 'Schools for the Feebleminded’, Accessed 24 Jan 2009.
  41. Howe, Samuel G. In ceremonies on laying the corner-stone of the New York State institution for the blind, at Batavia, Genessee County, New York, Batavia, N.Y.: Henry Todd, 1866
  42. The Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition, Accessed 24 Jan 2009.
  43. Spofford, Harriet Prescott. "In the Greek Revolution," New York Times, (July 17, 1909) Accessed 24 Jan 2009.
  44. 44.0 44.1 Cumbler, John T. From Abolition to Rights for All: The Making of a Reform Community in the Nineteenth Century, Page 138. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2008
  45. 45.0 45.1 45.2 Encyclopedia Britannica, Charles Sumner.

External links[]

de:Samuel Gridley Howe