On December 26, 1785, Louis Laurent Marie Clerc was born in the southeastern French
town of La Balme-les-Grottes. For generations, his family had been in the service of the king, and his father was the royal civil attorney, justice of the peace
, and mayor of the village. At about one year old, Clerc fell out of his high chair and landed in the kitchen fireplace. He received a severe burn
on his face, resulting in a scar that eventually became his name sign
. Shortly after the accident, it was discovered that he was deaf
and his parents tried a wide variety of methods to restore his hearing - all to no avail. Instead he stayed at home for most of his childhood, exploring the village rather than attending school. When Clerc was twelve years old, his uncle-godfather enrolled him in the world's first public school
for the deaf, the Institut National des Jeune Sourds-Muets
(National Institute for Young Deaf-Mute
s). When an assistant teacher was having difficulty teaching Clerc to speak, he struck the boy under the chin, causing Clerc to bite his tongue so badly that he swore to himself he would never learn to speak. This incident is believed to have eventually influenced the entire school of thought that dictates sign language
is the preferred way for deaf children to learn and communicate
. In 1809, he became a teacher at his own school.
While lecturing in London on manual communication, Clerc was introduced to Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who had traveled to Europe from the U.S. to learn how to teach the deaf child of a neighbor. They returned Paris, where Clerc had become the chief assistant to Abbé Sicard, the school's director. Still Clerc found time to give Gallaudet private lessons, and the latter was so impressed that he invited Clerc back to America to help establish a school for the deaf. Over the objections of Sicard and his own mother, Clerc eventually decided to cross the ocean at the age of 28. During the fifty-two day trip, he continued to teach Gallaudet, who in return helped Clerc improve his English skills. After reaching the United States, they gave lectures in a number of cities and talked with deaf children and their parents, raising a total of $12,000. In the first-ever appropriation for the education of the disabled, the Connecticut General Assembly voted to give another $5,000 to the cause.
In April 1817, Clerc became the head teacher at what is now the American School for the Deaf. In January 1818, he traveled to Washington, D.C., became the first deaf person to address Congress, and was well-received. Later that year, the school was completely filled with students ranging from age 10 to over 50, and a year after that Clerc married Eliza Crocker Boardman, one of his first students, with whom he fathered six children.
Clerc's influence on deaf education in the United States was dramatic. He taught administrators and teachers as well as students, who went on to establish schools for the deaf around the country. He also made a major impact on the language - Clerc taught using French signs, but his students blended those with their own, eventually forming American Sign Language. Today, two-thirds of ASL signs have French origins, and while hearing Americans and Brits can communicate easily, there is a much greater language barrier between deaf people using ASL and those using British Sign Language.
Clerc taught for 50 years, finally retiring in 1858. When he was 79 years old, he visited Washington again as the guest of honor at the inauguration of what is now Gallaudet University. He died on July 18, 1869, at the age of eighty-four. He and his wife are buried in a Hartford, CT cemetery. In 1992, a deaf man named Alan Barliowek visited Clerc's gravesite and was distressed by the poor condition of the headstones. The national campaign he started drew great support, and in 1998 Laurent and Elizabeth Clerc received new headstones.