Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876) was born in Boston on November 10, 1801. He was educated at the Boston Latin School. His father, having decided that he could send only one of his three sons to college, had all three read a chapter from the Bible and chose the best reader, who happened to be Samuel. He was sent to Brown University because there was less Federalist influence there than at Harvard. Young Howe spent some of his time studying, some in companionship with a group of friends joined together in the “Knights of the Long Table,” and some in the perpetration of general mischief. Among his misdemeanors were taking President Messer’s horse up to the top floor of the college building, putting ashes in a tutor’s bed, and also squirting ink through the keyhole into the eye of a tutor who was trying to check up on what Howe was doing. For his offences he was rusticated, sent to the care of the Reverend Josephus Wheaton of Holliston, Massachusetts, to keep up his studies away from the distractions of college life from mid-March to the first of August 1819, after which he was allowed to return to college. His antics were such that, when he called on President Messer some years after his graduation to apologize for his youthful pranks, Messer motioned him to sit at a distance, fearful that “there will be a torpedo under my chair before I know it.” After graduation from Brown, Howe went to Harvard and received his M.D. degree in 1824.
The Greek War of Independence had started in 1821, and Howe, fresh out out Medical School and inspired by Lord Byron, took some fencing lessons and offered himself as surgeon/soldier to the Greek cause. It was said of him that he “only became a surgeon when the fighting was over.” He did not meet Byron, who was ill and died in April 1825. He did manage to purchase Byron’s blue-plumed helmet, which occupied a place of honor in the Howe household and was eventually returned to Greece by his daughter, Maud Howe Elliott, in 1926. Howe’s medical experience with the Greek army and later with the navy led to his promotion to Surgeon-in-chief of the Greek fleet. He returned to America in 1828 to undertake a lecture tour to raise supplies of food and clothing for the Greeks and returned to distribute them, giving them away to the feeble, but requiring the able-bodied to work for them. He set refugees to work building a sea-wall on the island of Aegina and established a colony of the poor in a town which he named “Washingtonia,” where he was “governor, legislator, clerk, constable, and everything but patriarch.”
In 1831 he returned to the United States and was engaged to head the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind which had been chartered two years earlier. He returned to Europe to learn from schools for the blind there, and was imprisoned for bringing American aid to Polish refugees in Prussia. On his return to Boston in 1832 he took two blind students into his father’s house and began to instruct them with the aid of his sister. As his funds were soon exhausted, he exhibited his students before the state legislature to win continued support. The next year Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins gave his mansion for the school, and in 1839 it was renamed the Perkins Institution for the Blind in his honor. Meanwhile, a fund of $50,000 had been raised for support of the school. His most famous pupil was Laura Bridgman, a seven-year old New Hampshire girl who had been blind and deaf after having scarlet fever at the age of two.
He then turned his attention to the mentally deficient, and in 1848 persuaded the Massachusetts legislature to appropriate “a sum not exceeding $2500 for the purpose of teaching ten idiotic children,” selected by the Governor and Council. Two years later the legislature established the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth, which later became the Walter E. Fernald School.
He married Julia Ward, the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He was opposed to slavery and, as a sympathizer with John Brown of Harper’s Ferry, he lived for a short time in Canada, because Brown’s supporters were being arrested in the United States. During the Civil War he was a member of the Sanitary Commission. He was later on the commission to observe the condition of freedmen in the South and the commission sent to Santo Domingo in 1867. He went to Crete with supplies during the insurrection against Turkey in 1871.
One of Howe’s last communications from Theodore Parker was a Latin epitaph (written when Howe was fifty-seven, so that his age of 77 at death was a conjecture), which translated reads:
.Here LiesHowe was 74 when he died in Boston on January 9, 1876. On June 4, 1941 a marble and bronze base for the flagpole on the Middle Campus was dedicated as a memorial to him, a gift of the American Hellenic Educational and Progressive Association.
Awaiting the resurrection of the just
All that was mortal
Of that illustrious man,
Samuel Gridley Howe, M.D.
As a youth he disported in Brown University
To get an education,
And its reverend and famous President Messer
Much he riled.
Yet he became well versed
In the difficult dialect of Brown University
And in its Arts, Letters and Philosophy.
Among the beautiful chiefs he was Antinous.
He studied the medical art.
As a pupil he dug up many subjects and cut them into bits
With force of arms.
As a master he sent the souls of many chiefs untimely to Orcus.
A true Aesculapius among doctors
In the land of the Argives
He slew many Turks by medical art and the sword,
Than which a better never did sustain itself upon a soldier’s thigh.
He fought for Poland, the unconquered.
He visited those in prison. He made the blind see.
The dumb speak, the foolish understand (as well as he could).
He restored the insane to their right mind,
He freed the slaves,
He made his garden yield the choicest pears.
He lived about seventy-seven years.
Prisoners bewail him. The blind weep for him.
The dumb lament. Idiots mourn.
The insane cry out for him.
And the slaves sit in the dust.