By Paul Theerman, Associate Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health
Today’s blog post commemorates Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, born December 10, 1787. A founder of the American Asylum for Deaf-mutes (now the American School for the Deaf) in Hartford, Connecticut, Gallaudet was a pioneer educator. His name lives on through Gallaudet University of Washington, D.C., the only U.S. institution of higher learning for the deaf.1
Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, a Parisian instructor from the French National Institute of Deaf-Mutes (Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets à Paris), became founding figures in the creation story of deaf culture. As Oliver Sacks put it in his 1989 book, Seeing Voices, both were instrumental in nurturing American Sign Language, a rallying point for the deaf community.
The French sign system imported by Clerc rapidly amalgamated with the indigenous sign languages here—the deaf generate sign language wherever there are communities of deaf people; it is for them the easiest and most natural mode of communication—to form a uniquely expressive and powerful hybrid, American Sign Language (ASL).2
In the mid-19th century, American Sign Language flourished at Hartford and its daughter schools, including Gallaudet University, founded in 1864 by Thomas’s son, Edward Miner Gallaudet.3 But the educational world was divided, and some—notably Alexander Graham Bell—favored teaching the deaf to lip-read and to speak, and actively discouraged signing. At the International Congress on Education of the Deaf, held in Milan in 1880, the proponents of “oralism” carried the day. Gallaudet held out as one of the few places where sign continued, but by the 20th century, only as “signed English,” not ASL.4 Yet sign language was the common language of the deaf. It reemerged, first as a topic of linguistic study in the 1950s and 60s by Gallaudet professor William Stokoe,5 and then in art, in places like the National Theater of the Deaf, founded in 1967.6 Finally ASL became a rallying point for political action.
In 1988, Gallaudet’s board of trustees selected a hearing president, the only non-deaf candidate of the three finalists. Gallaudet students shut down the university in the “Deaf President Now” movement. ASL carried their protests. They prevailed: within a week, the new president and the chair of the trustees were both gone, and the school’s first deaf president was appointed.7 Eighteen years later, students blocked another prospective president from taking office at Gallaudet; among the reasons was that, though deaf, she lacked fluency in ASL.8 The revolution in teaching the deaf that Gallaudet started in the first decades of the nineteenth century continues to this day.
1. Henry Barnard, Tribute to Gallaudet. A Discourse in Commemoration of the Life, Character and Services of the Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet, LL.D., Delivered before the Citizens of Hartford, Jan. 7th, 1852. With an Appendix, Containing History of Deaf-Mute Instruction and Institutions, and Other Documents (Hartford: Brockett & Hutchinson, 1852). Gallaudet passed away September 10, 1851. Gallaudet married one of his students, a deaf woman, Sophia Fowler. Among their children were The Rev. Thomas Gallaudet (1822–1902), who also married a deaf woman, Elizabeth Budd, taught at deaf institutions in New York City, and established a religious congregation for the deaf, St. Ann’s, which continues in New York. Another son was Edward Miner Gallaudet (1837–1917), founder of Gallaudet University.
2. Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), p. 23. Overall, a lucid and insightful introduction to the shifting fortunes of the deaf up to 1988, the year of Gallaudet’s “Deaf President Now” movement.
3. Edward Miner Gallaudet, History of the College for the Deaf: 1857–1907, Lance J. Fisher and David L. de Lorenzo (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet College Press, 1983). The institution was originally chartered as the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind. Its college department was renamed for Thomas Gallaudet in 1894. In 1954 the whole institution received that name officially, which changed to Gallaudet University in 1986. See also “Gallaudet University,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallaudet_University, accessed December 2, 2014.
4. Sacks, p. 148; see also “Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_International_Congress_on_Education_of_the_Deaf, accessed December 4, 2014. For Bell’s opposition, see: Alexander Graham Bell, The Mechanism of Speech; Lectures Delivered before the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, to which is Appended a Paper Vowel Theories Read before the National Academy of Arts and Sciences. Illustrated with Charts and Diagrams (New York and London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1907); Gallaudet, pp. 182–83; and Maxine Tull Boatner, Voice of the Deaf: A Biography of Edward Miner Gallaudet (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1959), chapter 13, “Fathers and Sons.” In Bell’s family were deaf persons; his telephone was intended in part as a way to help ease that limitation.
5. William Stokoe, Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf, Studies in Linguistics: Occasional Papers, No. 8 (Buffalo: Dept. of Anthropology and Linguistics, University of Buffalo, 1960). William C. Stokoe, Dorothy C. Casterline, and Carl G. Croneberg, A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet College Press, 1965). See also Sacks, pp. 77–78.
6. Sacks, pp. 145–47.
8. “Gallaudet Names New President,” The Washington Post, May 3, 2006, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/03/AR2006050300920.html, accessed December 2, 2014.