Mabel Bell (Posthumous)

Cape Breton University is proud to honour the legendary determination, spirit of innovation and lifelong accomplishments of Mabel Hubbard Bell.

Mabel Hubbard was born on November 25, 1857.  Her incredible drive and personality were instrumental to the international fame and impact experienced by her husband, Alexander Graham Bell. Yet, Mabel had her own remarkable, independent and unique qualities.

Mabel’s early education began at home with her mother as her teacher. The speech and vocabulary she had as a five-year-old child, before she became deaf, were not only preserved but expanded, and she became a skilled lip reader. When she was nine years old, Mabel appeared before the Massachusetts Legislative Assembly to demonstrate that a deaf child could learn to lip read and speak effectively.

Mabel’s parents also hired a private tutor to improve her lip reading and speech ability. From this association an affection developed, and she eventually married her former teacher, Alexander Graham Bell in 1877. Mabel successfully managed the family’s financial and commercial interests; she enjoyed society and was a vivacious hostess. Mabel came to Baddeck, Cape Breton, with her family in 1885, and it was here that she demonstrated her genuine and deep interest in the well-being and prosperity of the people of Baddeck. The townspeople of Baddeck showed their respect and admiration for Mabel by passing an ordinance giving her the right to vote in municipal elections.

In 1907, Mabel became the first woman to invest in the aviation industry. Believing that her husband’s aeronautical experiments could lead to heavier-than-air flying machines, she organized, financed and recruited members, such as J.A.D. “Douglas” McCurdy and F.W. “Casey” Baldwin, to form the Aerial Experiment Association. Two years later, the AEA launched the first manned flight in the Canada.

To encourage women in Baddeck to, “acquire knowledge and promote sociability,” Mabel formed the Young Ladies Club of Baddeck in 1891. Now the Alexander Graham Bell Club, it is the oldest continuously operated women’s organization in Canada. Later the needlework talent exhibited by the women of Baddeck impressed Mabel’s entrepreneurial instincts. She felt that if a market for their work could be found, the women would become financially self-reliant. As a result, she began a home industries program. Having found a market for the work in Montreal she brought in three teachers and started classes. In some cases, this was the first cash these women had ever earned.

Alexander Graham Bell formed an association for the parents of deaf children in the United States, and Mabel knew of parents in Washington, DC, who were planning the First National Congress of Mothers. They both felt Baddeck would benefit from a parents’ association, a radical idea at a time when many believed parents had no place in the educational system.  The first meeting was held December 18, 1895, in Baddeck, and eventually groups formed across the country, becoming the Canadian Home and School Parent-Teacher Federation.

Mabel also changed the face of education in Baddeck by starting the Children’s Laboratory on the Bell estate in 1912. Mabel had read about Dr. Maria Montessori and her innovative methods of teaching children and consequently hired a Montessori teacher from New York to come to the estate to set up a school for her grandchildren and other children from the area. Dr. Montessori visited the school as a guest of Dr. and Mrs. Bell. Later that same year, Mabel started a Montessori School in Washington, DC and eventually became the first president of the Montessori Educational Association of America, often giving interviews promoting the use of the Montessori teaching methods. So it is perhaps noteworthy that today’s entrepreneurship educators at Cape Breton University are looking to involve students and teachers in the P-12 system in similarly inspired approaches to promoting innovation and creativity in the classroom.

Mabel also carried out scientific experiments in her own right, including cultivating vegetables under varying growing conditions. She reported her findings to the Bureau of Soils in the United States as well as the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa. She carried out many experiments in food preservation and sheep production during the Great War and was a talented photographer.

Mabel died on January 3, 1923, less than a year after her husband. Mabel and Alexander had four children, two daughters, Elsie May Bell and Marian Hubbard Bell and two sons, Edward and Robert, both of whom died shortly after birth.