Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was born in 1787 in Hartford, Connecticut. As a young man, he studied theology at Andover Theological Seminary with plans to become an Episcopal priest. One day he returned to Hartford to visit, and noticed a young Deaf neighbor, Alice Cogswell. He called her over and attempted to talk to her, but could not communicate. Then he tried a different approach. He scratched the letters H-A-T in the dirt with a stick. He pointed to them, then took off his hat and placed it next to the letters. Again he pointed to the letters and pantomimed putting on the hat. After several repetitions, he rubbed out the word and wrote it again a few feet away. Alice took his hat and placed it next to the word. Gallaudet took Alice to her parents immediately and demonstrated what he had taught her. Her father, Mason Cogswell, was elated to see that his daughter could be taught language. In 1815, Cogswell gathered a few prominent sponsors together and proposed that they would send a representative to the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb to learn how to teach English to Deaf children, which the representative could then bring back to the United States in order to found a school for the Deaf. They chose Gallaudet as their representative.

Gallaudet stayed in London for several months but Joseph Watson, the director of the asylum, would not teach Gallaudet his techniques unless he agreed to be Watson’s assistant for three years and teach the students penmanship. This was more time than Gallaudet was willing to or could afford to spend. While he was in London, Gallaudet met the abbé Sicard, the current director of the National Institution for the Deaf in Paris. Sicard invited Gallaudet to observe his teaching techniques and if they impressed him, Sicard would teach him these techniques in a much shorter time period than Watson had requested.

After declining Watson’s offer, Gallaudet visited Paris and began studying under Sicard. He became friends with Laurent Clerc, a professor and former student of the Institution. Clerc was Deaf and fluent in French Sign Language and written French. After several months, Gallaudet became homesick and eager to begin teaching in America. Since he was not yet fluent in French Sign Language or the system of signs for translating Sign Language into written French, he asked Clerc to accompany him back to Hartford in order to show his sponsors what an educated Deaf man could accomplish, and to help him teach the French techniques to students in America. Clerc agreed and created a system of signing based on his native language that would be compatible with American customs as well as a system of sign that could be used to teach the Deaf written English. This language is now known as American Sign Language.

Gallaudet and Clerc founded what is now known as the American School for the Deaf in 1817. Gallaudet was its first principal, and Alice Cogswell one of its first students. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Sign Language. He spoke out against oralism, the method of teaching the Deaf using lip reading while discouraging Sign Language. Gallaudet died in 1851. His son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, convinced Congress to found Gallaudet University, the first Deaf college in the United States.

Source: Lane, Harlan. When the Mind Hears NY: Random House, 1989.

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