MABEL HUBBARD BELL
by Stan Griffin, Deaf Friends International Special Contributor
Before teacher and inventor Alexander Graham Bell married Mabel Hubbard, he described her voice as " ... naturally sweet ... (having a) beautiful quality ..." Unfortunately, she was never able to hear it herself because Mabel was deaf. And when Bell's most famous invention (the telephone) became extremely popular throughout the world, Mabel was unable to use it for the same reason.
Bell had been born in Scotland. His mother was deaf. His father taught deaf mutes to speak, wrote textbooks on the subject, and developed "Visible Speech." Two of the Bell sons assisted their father in public demonstrations of that new system. Graham (as he was called then) studied at the University of Edinburg, became a full-time teacher there, and later taught Visible Speech to a class of deaf children at the University of London.
When two of his brothers died of tuberculosis and doctors said that Graham was at risk for the same disease, the elder Bell moved the family to Brantford, Ontario, Canada.
Graham's health improved, and he soon traveled to Boston where he started a school for teachers of the deaf. He became a professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at Boston University in 1873, took on private students, and rapidly acquired a reputation. Bell met Gardner Greene Hubbard through his (Aleck's) experiments with the telegraph, and he invested money to advance Bell's work.
Hubbard's daughter, Mabel, was deaf. She was born on November 25, 1857 in Boston. At the age of five she became ill with scarlet fever. There were no antibiotics then, so the inflammation spread to Mabel's inner ears, and she became totally deaf.
In the mid-19th century, hearing-impaired children were taught only sign language; but Mr. Hubbard was not at all satisfied He knew Mabel was intelligent, she could even speak a few words, and she was an expert lipreader. (This was rare for a girl then.) Gardner wanted Mabel to learn speech so he worked to convince the state legislature to finance an "oral" school where the students would learn that skill.
Through the efforts of Mr. Hubbard, Massachusetts lawmakers were convinced to charter such a school: the Clarke Institute for Deaf Mutes (or as it was called later the Clarke School for the Deaf). Mabel attended this school. Her father also hired Miss Mary True who tutored Mabel on speech skills from age 8 to 11.
Mabel's father sent her to school in Germany where she learned chemistry and the national language; but there was little improvement in her speech. When Mabel returned to the U.S., she was 16. Her father decided to send her to the "best vocal coach in Boston": his business partner, Aleck Bell.
Mabel's first impressions of him were decidedly negative: "I did not like him. He was tall and dark with jet black hair and eyes but dressed badly and carelessly in an old-fashioned suit ... (and) seemed hardly a gentleman." She soon changed her mind and looked forward to daily lessons.
From the beginning, Bell thought she was " ... quick, ethusiastically compelling ... (and he) never had a pupil that improved so fast." He soon began to think of her as more than a student, and she soon began to return his romantic attentions.
Both families were at first opposed to their marriage. The Hubbards were discouraged by the ten-year age difference while the Bells feared children would be deaf like Mabel. After a few months, both sets of parents gave in and consented to their nuptials.
Aleck and Mabel became engaged on Thanksgiving Day, 1875 which was also Mabel's birthday. Their engagement lasted 1 1/2 years, a period during which Aleck reached professional goals by completing some very successful experiments on his telephone, obtaining his first patent (1876), and founding the Bell Telephone Company (which eventually became A.T.&T.).
As her first contribution to the new Bell family, Mabel made two suggestions regarding Aleck's name. First, she expressed the opinion that the "k" in Aleck should be dropped. Secondly, she recommended that on all public writing (including autographs) he should always use his full name: Alexander Graham Bell. Mabel had a good ear for oral rhythm, the progression of syllables (4-2-1).
Alec and Mabel were married on July 11, 1877 at the Hubbard house in Cambridge. Among Alec's gifts to Mabel were a pearl necklace, a small silver telephone, and 1,497 shares of stock in Bell Telephone. After a honeymoon at Niagara Falls and a visit to the Bell home in Brantford, Canada, Alec and Mabel sailed to England where they spent 15 months.
They visited the Bell family home in Scotland, and Alec did some promotional work with his telephone. He gave lectures and demonstrations. One of these was a "command performance" with Queen Victoria watching. Perhaps the most important event on this trip was the birth of the first Bell child: Elsie May. (May 10, 1878). The trio returned to the U.S. later that same year.
A friend described Mabel's physical appearance this way: " ... a slender, graceful woman with the gentlest manners, her sweet sympathetic face framed in the most beautiful soft brown hair ... a picture of elegance (in) lace ... skin smooth and white ... graceful ..."
Alec spent his days publicizing the telephone and fighting court challenges to his patents. He also found time to continue his teaching of the deaf. In fact, he considered the latter to be his " ... real life work ..." In 1881 when asked his occupation, his reply was "teacher of the deaf." Bell never stopped promoting lipreading and speech therapy, considering sign language as " ...a narrow prison intellectually ..."
Alec and the children never thought of Mabel as deaf. She controlled the family finances and was " ... the heart of it all ..." She had a close relationship with her daughters, Elsie and Daisy (born in 1880)
Bell was what we would call today a "workaholic," busy until very late at night. One of Mabel's knottiest problems was getting him out of bed in the morning. She did her best to encourage a healthy lifestyle. She said once: " . . I want you to be successful in your experiments but not to lose all human interest in the process ..." She kept after him about his working hours, his lack of sleep, and encouraged him to spend more time with the girls.
Alec included Mabel in all social situations. In a noisy room, he often pounded the table to get her attention! Conversations with strangers were no problem. After only a few words, Mabel would become accustomed to his or her speech habits and have very little difficulty understanding and being understood. Her broad vocabulary and reading of facial expressions and body movements made her lipreading an effective social tool.
Alec was a very talented pianist, at one time considering it as a career. When he played at home, Mabel placed her hands on the piano and "listened" with her fingers as she felt the vibrations.
She had a grasp of science that was unusual in a woman of her time and an unusually "keen eye" for geography. Her letters "conveyed the flavor of a local or regional culture."
Mabel was rarely seen with other deaf persons. She once wrote: "Deaf teachers don't want them to 'herd' together ... to become 'peculiar' people ..." Both she and Alec believed sign language tended to "isolate" the deaf. In 1894 Mabel sent a paper to a convention of speech teachers; its title was "The Subtle Art of Speech-Reading." It was very well received; and in fact, it was later published in the "Atlantic Monthly." Her work was described as having " ... rich vocabulary ... (and a) practiced intellectual quality ..."
Mabel was very helpful to Alec in his work. It was partly due to her enouragement that he was active in national, scientific, humanitarian, and educational organizations. One of these was the National Geographic Society, founded in 1888 by Mabel's father. Alec became the president in its early days They published a magazine, but it barely stayed afloat with only a small number of subscribers. Its existence was definitely in jeopardy, and people criticized it as "dull." Mabel suggested including photographs with the stories. From then on, it became a thriving publication and remains so today, maintaining a worldwide reputation for its striking pictorial style.
Mabel had an early interest in women's rights. She expressed the opinion that female telephone operators were superior to men. She helped women become university faculty members in the 1870s (Boston). In 1910 at the age of 52 Mabel became a strong advocate for women suffrage. She and her daughters took part in a national convention in Washington, D.C. and marched in a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.
A new idea in education gained Mabel's interest. It was called the "Montessori system," and it "stressed development of a child's own initiative." Mabel was instrumental in opening the first Montessori school in Canada (1912). She founded the Montessori Education Association and became its president. Later she opened a school in Washington, D.C. and started a magazine: "Freedom for the Child." The system became controversial; and in 1919, all schools closed. (Later in the 20th century, Montessori made a comeback.)
During World War I (1914-1918), Mabel sponsored benefits to raise money for the Red Cross. She also helped build lifeboats for the U.S. Navy and got women involved in her work.
Alec contracted diabetes in 1920. A few months later he was diagnosed with pernicious anemia, a fatal blood disease. In spite of suffering little pain, Alec grew weaker each succeeding day. In its last stages, he could no longer speak. He died on August 2, 1922 at the age of 75. "Mabel's face was the last he saw ... her hand was the last he touched before the end ..."
Mabel outlived her husband by only five months. That period was very difficult for her. Among other things, she said: "I thought I would always have him"; " ... the heart of everything has gone out of life forever ...:; and it was " ... terrible trying to live without him ...".
In the midst of her mourning, Mabel tried to occupy herself. She organized Bell's notes for historians who would write his biography. She also attempted to keep in motion some of his projects, particularly experiments with a hydrofoil (a boat traveling ABOVE the water instead of ON it) and tests on a flying machine.
Then Mabel came down with pancreatic cancer. She reportedly said to her daughters, "Wasn't I clever not to get ill until Daddy ... didn't need me any more?" She died on January 3, 1923 and was buried next to Alec at their summer home (Beinn Bhreagh) in Canada.
Mabel was a remarkable woman who overcame her deafness to provide a home life that was a solid foundation for her husband and daughters.