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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.