A National Geographic Love Story

Mabel Hubbard Bell and Alexander Graham Bell (Photograph courtesy NGS archives)

By Laura Wallach

Mabel Gardiner Hubbard was only five years old when scarlet fever rendered her deaf for life, but at the age of 16 she would meet a young Scottish speech therapist who was destined to shape her future. Mabel’s father and National Geographic’s first president, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, took a liking to the industrious teacher and part-time inventor.

We know him better as Alexander Graham Bell, National Geographic’s second president. This is Mabel and Alexander’s love story.

Alexander Graham Bell and Mabel Hubbard Bell (Photograph courtesy NGS archives)
Alexander Graham Bell and Mabel Hubbard Bell (Photograph courtesy NGS archives)

In 1873, 27-year-old Alexander fell in love with Mabel when she was 16, but it was an unreciprocated fancy. “He was tall and dark with jet-black hair and eyes, but dressed badly and carelessly,” she said. “I could never marry such a man!”

Despite her initial disinterest, she began to grow fond of him during his time as her speech teacher and their relationship evolved. After one of her first classes with him, a giddy Mabel wrote to her mother: “Mr. Bell said today my voice is naturally sweet.” In a letter to Mabel on the night of their engagement, Alexander wrote, “I am afraid to fall asleep, lest I should find it all a dream—so I shall lie awake and think of you.”

The Bell family poses for a photo in 1885, three years before National Geographic’s founding. (Photograph courtesy NGS archives)
The Bell family poses for a photo in 1885, three years before National Geographic’s founding. (Photograph courtesy NGS archives)

Alexander assumed the National Geographic Society presidency on January 7, 1898, but years earlier Alexander and Mabel had two daughters together, Elsie and Daisy. Elsie went on to marry Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, National Geographic magazine’s first editor-in-chief, solidifying the family ties to the Society for another generation.

Mabel sits with Alexander on a dock where he performed many of his experiments. (Photograph courtesy NGS archives)
Mabel sits with Alexander on a dock where he performed many of his experiments. (Photograph courtesy NGS archives)

In addition to the telephone, Alexander was fascinated with other inventions, such as flying machines and hydrofoil technology. “Every day I see something new in him to love and admire,” she said. “It is wonderful that he should be so clever…so utterly without conceit of any kind.”

Mabel proves that she is just as adventurous as her inventor husband while trying on a diving suit. (Photograph courtesy NGS archives)
Mabel proves that she is just as adventurous as her inventor husband while trying on a diving suit. (Photograph courtesy NGS archives)

The 1939 film, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, starring Don Ameche as Alexander and Loretta Young as Mabel, captured the couple’s great romance on the big screen. There was also a book published in 1961 titled Make a Joyful Sound: The Romance of Mabel Hubbard and Alexander Graham Bell.

NGS Picture ID:201467
Even though she was deaf, Mabel gave Alexander a piano as a wedding gift and asked that he play for her every day. (Photograph courtesy NGS archives)

“I dread absence from you,” Alexander once wrote to Mabel. “Let us lay it down as a principle of our lives that we shall be together.” And be together they were, for over 45 years. Alexander died in 1922 from complications from diabetes. Shortly before he died, Mabel held on to his hand and pleaded, “Don’t leave me.” Unable to speak, he replied, “No” in sign language.

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