Human Journey

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.

  • Ima Ryma

    She was deaf and he came to her.
    He came to help her with her speech.
    Berween them, true love did occur.
    They were devoted each to each.
    They married and she gave to him
    A piano to play each day,
    So that their love might never dim.
    She could not hear, but watched him play.
    Together for forty five years,
    He was first to end of the line.
    She watched him leave her through her tears,
    Saying a last good-bye in sign.

    Alexander Graham Bell’s life
    Was fulfilled with Mabel, his wife.

  • behzad

    I am utterly thankful to National Geographic

  • Wanda

    I didn’t realize Alexander was so handsome! Love. About Mabel’s love for him, all I can comment is “Love conquers all” in spite of flaws. HIm professing his love for Mabel, such love is rare and it is why Mabel couldn’t resist him and why he was her whole world and why she seemed not to question his somewhat oppressive unfounded political obsessions to suppress Deaf People’s Right to Freedom ot choice to the same love that he had for Mabel. She probably did not know? Or did she believe what Alexander believed, too? It doesn’t matter because in her time it was very difficult being a female and it was survival of the fittest. It wasn’t easy being a deaf female in that era. It was a living nightmare. She did the smartest thing. Being a wife, mother and a housewife is on top of the list. Husband comes first, not politics. I was born deaf.

  • Andre

    So beatiful! Thanks for this opportunity!

  • Absolutely Eco – Friendly

    What an amazing, beautiful and interesting story. It does not surprise me that an organization of the importance of National Geography had such loving beginnings. They were both very special people, no doubt about it. It was the beginning of something really big indeed.

  • Thomas R. Harrington

    It’s fascinatingly ironic that Alexander Graham Bell, who believed strongly in the “oral” method of deaf communication and tried to discourage the use of sign language by deaf people, and Mabel, who even more so than her husband rejected the use of sign language, had to resort to signs to communicate on his deathbed.

  • matSeattle

    You did not realized that Alexander Graham Bell was eugenics, Due AG Bell against Deaf couple.. he believe that Deaf man should not married to Deaf woman. Find a match with hearing spouse or oppoiste. There is no genetic often .. It is huge misunderstood.. Sad Mabel did not learn ASL back in 1870’s

    http://www.workersforjesus.com/dfi/961.htm

    somewhat I do not agree with AGBell Foundiation today

    matSeattle

  • […] adventurous life and love story of Mable Here's an interesting piece of history with a bunch of black and white photos written by the National Geographic. A piece that covers the […]

  • IssaBella

    I have to say there is not enough in this article to really cause me to say “aw”. And I highly doubt the man ever signed “No”, mouthed it maybe.

    AGB was not a fan of Deaf, and yes he fell in love with a Deaf woman, he never wanted to learn sign/ASL and made it clear that he didn’t want Deaf to marry Deaf. That we Deaf needed to forget we are Deaf and learn to speak. Sparking years of oppression, isolation and more even to present day.

  • josue christopher

    I was born normal but at age 9 i became hearing loss as i grow older i became more deaf ..i stoped school at 13 and in all my life i do odd job@general work.i never know about deafness..but happened to met a groups of deaf using hand to communicate each other..
    from then on i tried my self to learn and improve my self and till today i still improving my sign language.
    i learned english language @broken english..but im still thankful to GOD for enabling me to lead this life…

    well at first it was very difficult..i tought i was only the deaf in this world..as i never knew about deafness..in 1998 or 1999 i mixed among the deaf just to learn more..in mid year 2k i began learning about internet or ict and there i knew about more or million of deaf arounds this globe and im happy to be among or parts of them or their deaf community.
    but i still feel lonely as i dunt have many deaf to share life exprience..so with this internet worlds or era of high technology we can share info to uplift the life of fellow deaf arounds this worlds.
    AGBell the founder of telecomunciation but i never knew he married a deaf and it’s good to know about that..i only knew marley matlin married to a policeman in canada..becoz many years ago marley matlin was famous in local television show ..
    peace to all the Deaf out there.

  • […] Alexander is said to know some sign language and have used it with his mother before deciding to communicate with her by speaking in low, sonorous tones very close to her forehead. He was also discouraged by his father to use sign language in order to promote his Visual Speech philosophy. Just before Bell died, he could not speak and signed “No” when his wife pleaded him not to leave her. […]

  • brittany

    he was cool

  • […] Interesting Tidbit: It would seem obvious that Helen Keller knew Alexander Graham Bell and met with him a few times but I never knew this until I read the novel.  However, what surprised me more was that Bell’s wife (Mabel Hubbard) was also deaf, which was why he was so involved with experiments for hearing devices and such.  Before Helen, Mabel was one of the first children in the nation to lip-read.  To learn a bit about Bell and Mabel’s marriage, click below: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/02/14/an-ng-kind-of-love/ […]

  • David Unrot

    At a time in history when being deaf was viewed as a defect to be concealed from society, and deaf people were often shunned or confined to institutions, AGB shined a light on the subject, and attacked it with his inventive imagination. Apart from the telephone itself, which for hearing-impaired people was a god-send, Bell Labs devoted years of research and development to the deaf who have benefitted immeasurably from AGB’s love for Mabel. Whatever his faults reflective of his generation’s misguided views of psuedo-science, he was one of humanity’s greatest benefactors.

  • bob

    thanks for the wonderful story

  • Bev Donahey

    I’m glad the National Geographic presented this article. I didn’t know about their romance and unending love. That is very nice. I am not deaf, although I don’t hear as well now in my old age as I did when I was younger. But I have had relatives with difficulty hearing, and I saw their frustrations and isolation as they felt left out because of not understanding what was being said. It is wonderful that, through the internet, hearing and deaf alike can communicate! I would be very happy to be pen pal friends with deaf people.

  • Mina Vekaria

    The great human,great work too…

  • Zeek Woo

    Never thought that G. Bell was so related to NatGeo. What a romance!!

  • Priscilla G Steele

    As a nurse I have had the opportunity to communicate with hearing impaired and deaf. We were the first students to be in the operating room for tympanic membrane surgery using a piece of vein and a microscope to replace a damaged ear so the person can hear again.
    There are so many options today with implants, etc. that is so great. I enjoyed the article. Thank you.

    as a nurse I have had the opportunity to

  • Unnikrishnan.M.

    Thank you for this nice love,live story.Loved and being loved,is a great thing in life,for to live is to Love.

  • carmen

    Thanks for this wonderful story

  • Cabs

    A wonderful story. Who knew….

  • Cabs

    A wonderful story. Who knew…. He doesn’t look like the romantic type!

  • satheesan nair.c

    Amazing, he was her ear.. sound…making me magnificat the how the sharp of love.. and the final stage a story ends.

  • Syed Arbab Ahmed

    Great unconditional love, great story to be shared.

  • Lil

    A very sweet story!

  • Nia H Imman

    This is such a wonderful love story first time i am seeing Alexander Graham Bell as more of a person I will stay awake and think of you in case i should wake up and find this a dream.

    wow how beautiful, his use of words and expression he should have been a poet

  • IsmalDovisally

    Great story

  • Laura

    Yeah, gotta agree here with the folks who point out this is NOT a love story from a Deaf point of view. AGB was said to discourage his wife’s ASL learning/use–which then made her a dependent woman in a hearing world, instead of a free, whole person with her own language in the Deaf world. And yes, he was also into the eugenic control of not allowing (?!) a Deaf couple to marry or have kids. HIs schools, which only taught oral (aka the hearing way of communicating) to deaf children were denying those kids their language and culture. BTW I’m hearing but have Deaf family members. This needs to be looked into before we treat him like a hero.

  • Dawn MacKeller

    Beautiful story, interesting told. The personal tidbits make what is regarded as “just history to be memorized” into real, feeling people!

  • Rajkumar Oberoi

    Behind every successful man there is a woman, who shapes destiny of his efforts. He was a vanguard of world that’s today. A befitting tribute to visionary on Valentine’s day.

  • Dianne J Ferris

    Alexander G Bell was a genius, regardless of the beliefs of his era, so long ago. His research and discovery and creations of the telephone paved the way for the technology of today.Nice poem, Ima Ryma…which tells it all.

  • ahlam al daqaq

    i am writing i biography report about gardiner greene hubbad

  • anaht handa

    I have to a presentation and an 5 paragraph (7-10sentences)
    essay

  • […] This was Bell’s complicated relationship with the deaf. He felt passionately for them, but he wouldn’t let them live in deaf communities. He wanted them to do everything that hearing people could do.[3] […]

  • […] This was Bell’s complex romantic relationship with the deaf. He felt passionately for them, but he wouldn’t allow them are living in deaf communities. He needed them to do every little thing that hearing folks could do.[3] […]

  • DONNA SMITH

    I HEARD THAT MY GREAT GRANDMOTHER IS THE TWELFTH GENERATION DESCENDANT OF ALEXANDER BELL, LULA ALICE?

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