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Second Looks

How a Class of 1900 alumna influenced dyslexia research

In certainly the greatest irony of her life, The New York Times misspelled the name of dyslexia researcher Anna Gillingham, Class of 1900, in her obituary: “Anna Dillingham, an early authority on the teaching of remedial reading methods, died Thursday,” the Times wrote in 1964. 

Apparently, the newspaper itself was in need of a remedial copy editor.

Gillingham’s life is deserving of a second look. More than half a century later, her teaching approach, known as the Orton–Gillingham method, is still the foundation of the most common methods for teaching children with dyslexia how to read. And in addition to misspelling her name, the Times left out quite a few interesting and significant facts about her life. What better time than October, Dyslexia Awareness Month, to explore her life and legacy?

Gillingham was born into an old Philadelphia Quaker family, tracing its ancestry back to a progenitor who immigrated with William Penn in the 1600s. Her parents were both teachers. However, at the time of Anna’s birth, her father was working as an Indian agent for the U.S. government. Her first decade was spent on the Sioux Indian Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where she was home-schooled by her parents.

Gillingham’s senior quote in the yearbook was, “That which ordinary men are fit in, I am qualified in, and the best of me is diligence.” She was certainly able, graduating from Swarthmore with Phi Beta Kappa honors and the Lucretia Mott Fellowship. She went on to earn a second B.A. from Radcliffe and a master’s degree from Columbia Teachers College.

For decades, she worked at the Ethical Culture School in New York City. Among other roles, for a time she was principal of the “open air department,” described as an “experimental elementary department for very high IQ children.” The pupils spent most of their time on the roof of the building, but apparently, when it got cold enough to freeze their inkwells, the class was permitted to come inside.

In 1929, Gillingham met neurologist Samuel T. Orton, a pioneer in the field of learning disabilities, and soon after joined him on a research fellowship. Gillingham collaborated with Bessie W. Stillman to turn some of Orton’s ideas into practical form with the Gillingham–Stillman manual, also known as the Orton–Gillingham method, a multisensory phonics technique for remedial reading instruction. Completed around 1935, the manual forms the basis of many modern approaches to reading education, particularly for children with dyslexia.

Gillingham’s decades-long relationship with Stillman—delicately characterized by Gillingham’s biographers with terms like her “lifelong friend” and “colleague”—began while working at the Ethical Culture School in the early 1900s. They shared a home in New York and traveled extensively together—with special accommodations made for their vegetarian diets. In 1936, they moved to Hawaii, where Gillingham worked at Punahou School in Honolulu. They returned to New York in 1938 and collaborated on individual remedial cases and teacher training until Stillman died in 1947.

After Stillman’s death, Gillingham continued to work tirelessly, mostly on consulting work, teacher training, and updating her manual, even as her eyes began to fail her and she went completely blind. She remained devoted to her alma mater, making special efforts to visit Swarthmore for her class’s reunions.

At her 60th Reunion, in 1960, she greeted the next generation of Swarthmore-bred dyslexia researchers: Margaret Byrd Rawson ’23, H’83, then-president of the Orton Society (now the International Dyslexia Association). Gillingham would die just a few years later. Though The New York Times misidentified Gillingham, Rawson seemed to be right on the nose in describing her as “an individualist who lived her convictions with straightforward vigor.”

Visit the Friends Historical Library to view Anna Gillingham’s papers and photographs and learn more about her fascinating life and work.