Mabel Gardiner Hubbard

Mabel Gardiner Hubbard
Mabel Gardiner Hubbard (c.1917), who became completely deaf at age five.
Mabel Gardiner Hubbard with her husband Alexander Graham Bell and their daughters Elsie (left) and Marian (1885).
The Brodhead-Bell-Morton Mansion, the Bell's home from 1882–1889, in Washington, D.C., as it appears today.

Mabel Gardiner Hubbard (November 25, 1857 – January 3, 1923), was the daughter of Boston lawyer Gardiner Hubbard—the first president of the Bell Telephone Company. Mabel was also the wife of Alexander Graham Bell, an eminent scientist and the inventor of the first practical telephone.[1][2]

From the time of Mabel's courtship with Graham Bell in 1873, until his death in 1922, Mabel became and remained the most significant influence in his life.[3] Folklore held that Bell undertook telecommunication experiments in an attempt to restore her hearing which had been destroyed by disease close to her fifth birthday, leaving her completely deaf for the remainder of her life.[4][5][6][7][N 1]



Mabel was born on November 25, 1857 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, to Gardiner Greene Hubbard and Gertrude Mercer McCurdy.[2][N 2] She suffered a near-fatal bout of scarlet fever close to her fifth birthday in 1862 while visiting her maternal grandparents in New York City, and was thereafter left permanently and completely deaf.[3][7] The disease also destroyed her inner ear's vestibular sensors, additionally leaving her with a greatly impaired sense of balance, to the extent that it was very difficult for her to walk in the dark at night.[2]

Mabel was the inspiration for her father's involvement in the founding of the first oral school for the deaf in the United States, the Clarke School for the Deaf. Having been educated in both the United States and in Europe, she learned to both talk and lip-read with great skill in multiple languages.[3][8][9] She was also, due in great part to her parents' efforts, one of the first deaf children in the nation to be taught to both lip-read and speak, which allowed her to integrate herself easily and almost completely within the hearing world,[10] an event virtually unknown to those in the deaf community of that era. Her avoidance of the deaf community until her middle age when her parents died and left her to assume their roles as benefactor to the societies for the deaf, would later lead to criticisms that she was embarrassed by her impairment.

Described as "strong and self-assured", she became one of Graham Bell's pupils at his new school for the deaf, and later evolved into his confidant.[3] They married on July 11, 1877 in the Cambridge home of her parents, when she was 19, more than 10 years Bell's junior.[2][9]

Together they had four children, including two daughters:[2] Elsie May Bell (1878–1964) who married Gilbert Grosvenor of National Geographic fame,[11][12] and Marian Hubbard Bell (1880–1962), who was referred to as "Daisy", and who was nearly named Photophone by Bell after her birth.[13] Mabel also bore two sons, Edward (1881) and Robert (1883), both of whom died shortly after birth leaving their parents bereft.[14] From 1877 Mabel and "Alec", as she preferred to call him, lived in Washington, D.C. at their home, the Brodhead-Bell Mansion which they occupied for several years, and from 1888 onwards residing increasingly at their Beinn Bhreagh (Gaelic for "beautiful mountain") estate, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada.

After Alec's death in 1922, Mabel slowly lost her sight and grew increasingly consigned to the care of her daughters, withdrawing into a world of silent darkness.[9] She died of pancreatic cancer at the home of her daughter Marion, in Chevy Chase, MD, less than a year after her husband,[2][5][6] both of whom are buried near their home on "The Point" at their estate of Beinn Bhreagh, originally their summer residence. Her ashes were interred with Alexander's grave exactly one year, to the hour, after his burial.[4] Today, they rest together near the top of their "beautiful mountain" of their estate overlooking Bras d'Or Lake, under a simple boulder of granite.[2]

Deaf to Bell's utterances

The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, 1876, propelled the Bell's to international fame.

Mabel was the indirect source of her husband's early commercial success after his creation of the telephone. The U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 made Bell's newly invented telephone a featured headline worldwide. Judges Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II and the eminent British physicist William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) recommended his device to the Committee of Electrical Awards, which voted Bell the Gold Medal for Electrical Equipment. Bell also won a second Gold Medal for Visible Speech, for his additional display at the exposition, helping to propel him to international fame. Ironically, Bell, who was then a full-time teacher, hadn't even planned on exhibiting at the fair due to his heavy teaching schedule and preparation for his student's examinations. He went there only at the stern insistence of Mabel, his then-fiancée and future wife.[9]

Mabel had understood Bell's reluctance to go to the exhibition and display his works, so she secretly bought his train ticket to Philadelphia, packed his bag, and then took the unknowing Bell to Boston's train station where she told her shocked fiancé that he was going on a trip. When Bell started to argue, Mabel turned her sight away from him, thus becoming literally deaf to his protests.[3][9][15]

Mabel's stock ownership in the Bell Telephone Company

The Bell Telephone Company was organized on July 9, 1877 by Mabel's father Gardiner Greene Hubbard who owned 1,387 of the 5,000 issued shares and had the title of "trustee". Mabel's husband Alexander Bell owned 1,497 shares. But Bell immediately transferred all but 10 of his shares as a wedding gift to his new bride Mabel. A short time later, just prior to leaving for an extended honeymoon of Europe, Mabel signed a power of attorney giving control of her shares to her father. This made Gardiner Hubbard the de facto president and chairman of the Bell Telephone Company,[16] which later evolved into American Telephone & Telegraph, at times the world's largest telephone company.

Support to aeronautical research

Mabel was highly intelligent but usually preferred to remain in the background while Bell conducted scientific discussions and meetings among his peers—for many decades he held regular Wednesday evening intellectual salons in their home parlour, dutifully documented in the multiple volumes of his "homenotes".[3] However Mabel strongly believed that a heavier-than-air vehicle could be designed to fly, and she provided the inspiration and financing of about $20,000CAD to that end, a significant amount in 1907 (approximately $450,000 in 2008 dollars).[17] At that time Mabel Bell sold some of her real estate and gave that amount of money to her husband and four others to establish the Aerial Experimental Association (AEA), for the purpose of constructing "a practical flying aerodrome or flying machine driven through the air by its own power and carrying a man."[17] She later donated an additional $15,000 to the Association to permit a continuation of aeronautical research and development.[18] Mabel often sat through the AEA's technical meetings and scientific discussions, eventually acquiring a detailed understanding of the mechanics of flight.[7]

In addition to Dr. Bell, the AEA also included a young resident of Baddeck, Nova Scotia named Douglas McCurdy, who was a recent engineering graduate of the University of Toronto. McCurdy also brought along a close friend Frederick "Casey" Baldwin, who also had an engineering degree from the same university, and who would become either the third or fourth person to pilot an aircraft in the Americas after the Wright Brothers.[17]

Together the members of the AEA succeeded in designing, constructing and flying Canada's first heavier-than-air vehicle, the Silver Dart.[17] Based on their scientific experiments, the aircraft they designed and built incorporated several technical innovations not previously invented for flight, including lateral control by means of ailerons.[19]

Family tree

Gardiner Greene Hubbard
Gertrude McCurdy
Cornelius Roosevelt
Charles Bell
(born 1858)
Roberta Hubbard
Mabel Hubbard
A. G. Bell
Robert Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt, Sr.
Grace Hubbard Fortescue
"Rolly" Fortescue
Theodore Roosevelt
Thomas H. Massie
Thalia Massie
(1911–1963 )
Julian Louis Reynolds
(born 1910)
Helene Whitney

See also


  1. ^ Eber claimed that Mabel suffered scarlet fever in New York "...shortly before her fifth birthday...", however Toward provided a detailed chronology of the event claiming "...shortly after their arrival in New York [in January 1863]....", when Mabel would have been at least five years and five weeks of age. Mabel's exact age when she became deaf would later play a part in the debate on the effectiveness of manual versus oral education for deaf children, as children who are older at the onset of deafness retain greater vocalization skills and are thus more successful in oral education programs. Some of the debate centred on whether Mabel had to relearn oral speech from scratch, or whether she never lost it.
  2. ^ Her New York Times obituary lists her birth as November 25, 1859. Robert Bruce's and Charlotte Gray's biographies both give Mabel's birth year as 1857.
  1. ^ "Mrs. A.G. Bell Dies. Inspired Telephone. Deaf Girl's Romance With Distinguished Inventor Was Due to Her Affliction.". New York Times. January 4, 1923, Thursday. Retrieved 2007-07-21. "Mrs. Mabel Hubbard Bell, widow of Alexander Graham Bell ... Mrs. Bell was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 25, 1859 [sic], the daughter of Gardiner Green Hubbard [sic] ..." 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Toward, 1984.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Winefield, Richard. Never the Twain Shall Meet: Bell, Gallaudet, and the Communications Debate, Gallaudet University Press, 1987, pp.72-77, ISBN 1563680564, ISBN 9781563680564.
  4. ^ a b Toward, 1984. pg.1.
  5. ^ a b Mrs. Bell, Widow Of The Inventor Of The Telephone, Is Dead: Deaf From Girlhood, Her Infliction Inspired Husband's Great Triumph, Ludington Daily News, January 6, 1923. Originally publish in New York Times, January 4, 1923
  6. ^ a b Mrs. A.G. Bell Dies. Inspired Telephone. Deaf Girl's Romance With Distinguished Inventor Was Due to Her Affliction, New York Times, January 4, 1923.
  7. ^ a b c Eber, 1991. pp.43.
  8. ^ Eber, 1991. pp.43-45
  9. ^ a b c d e Gray, 2006
  10. ^ Eber, 1991. pp.45
  11. ^ "Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor Dies; Head of National Geographic, 90; Editor of Magazine 55 Years Introduced Photos, Increased Circulation to 4.5 Million". New York Times. February 5, 1966, Saturday. "Baddeck, Nova Scotia, 4 February 1964 (Canadian Press) Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor, chairman of the board and former president of the National Geographic Society and editor of the National Geographic magazine from 1899 to 1954, died on the Cape Breton Island estate once owned by his father-in-law, the inventor Alexander Graham Bell. He was 90 years old." 
  12. ^ "Mrs. Gilbert Grosvenor Dead; Joined in Geographic's Treks; Married Professor's Son". New York Times. 27 December 1964, Sunday. "Washington, DC, 26 December 1964. Mrs. Elsie May Bell Grosvenor, wife of Dr. Gilbert Grosvenor, chairman of the board of the National Geographic Society, died this evening at her home in Bethesda, Maryland. She was 86 years old. Death was attributed to heart disease and old age." 
  13. ^ "Mrs. David Fairchild, 82, Dead; Daughter of Bell, Phone Inventor". New York Times. 25 September 1962, Tuesday. "Baddeck, Nova Scotia, September 24, 1962 (Canadian Press) Mrs. Marian Bell Fairchild of Miami, widow of David Fairchild, noted plant explorer, and daughter of the telephone pioneer Alexander Graham Bell, died tonight at her summer home. She was 82 years old." 
  14. ^ Gray, 2006.
  15. ^ De Land, Fred (1906) Notes on the Development of the Telephone, Popular Science, November 1906, pp.427-438;
  16. ^ Pizer, Russell A. The Tangled Web of Patent #174465, Authorhouse, 2009, ISBN 1-4389-8402-2, ISBN 978-1-4389-8402-5, page.127
  17. ^ a b c d Rannie Gillis. Mabel Bell Was A Focal Figure In The First Flight of the Silver Dart, Cape Breton Post, 29 September 2008. Retrieved from First Airplane Flight In Canada website, 2 April 2010.
  18. ^ Toward, 1984. pp.141-155
  19. ^ Kermode, A.C. Mechanics of Flight, Chapter 9 (8th edition), Pitman Publishing Limited, London, 1972, ISBN 0-273-31623-0.

Further reading

  • Grosvenor, Edwin S. and Morgan Wesson. Alexander Graham Bell: The Life and Times of the Man Who Invented the Telephone. New York: Harry N. Abrahms, Inc., 1997. ISBN 0-8109-4005-1.
  • Mackay, James. Sounds Out of Silence: A life of Alexander Graham Bell. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing Company, 1997. ISBN 1-85158-833-7.
  • MacKenzie, Catherine. Alexander Graham Bell. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2003. ISBN 978-0766143852. Retrieved: July 29, 2009.
  • MacLeod, Elizabeth. Alexander Graham Bell: An Inventive Life. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 1999. ISBN 1-55074-456-9.
  • Matthews, Tom L. Always Inventing: A Photobiography of Alexander Graham Bell. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1999. ISBN 0-7922-7391-5.

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