The Founder of American Sign Language & First Deaf School in America

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851)

Ask any American if they know the name Gallaudet and its claim to fame and sadly you may not get the responses this legendary individual deserves. If there is one name that is particularly prominent in Deaf history and should receive more attention in standard American History books, it is Thomas Gallaudet. As with any record over 200 years old, differences spring up in various accounts of his life. Yet, the core details of his work, its purpose and outcome are consistent and speak to his significant impact on the world around him.

Thomas showed promise early in life. Born in Philadelphia, PA, his roots seemed to become more grounded in Hartford, CT where his parents settled. A student at Yale by age 14, Thomas graduated by 17 and later returned to earn a Master of Arts. Thomas is reported to have had an interest in studying law and becoming a traveling salesman or a trader, but ultimately he pursued his desire to enter the seminary by enrolling in the Andover Theological Seminary.

Fate had something else in mind and the ministry did not remain Thomas Gallaudet’s primary path. Although one cannot confirm a completely accurate account of the first time Alice Cogswell and Thomas connected, all agree that it changed the course of his life. The most common rendition of their meeting reports that, while staying with his parents, Thomas noticed local children were not playing with a neighbor girl, Alice. Thomas soon became aware that Alice was Deaf, a result of meningitis as a toddler. Although her family had found ways to communicate with Alice, there was no uniform language or established schools for the Deaf in America at the time. Excited by the possibilities of working with Alice, Thomas began tutoring her with the encouragement of her father, Mason Cogswell.

Frustrations with the limitations inherent in communicating with and teaching Alice, coupled with her father Mason’s drive to provide education for individuals like his daughter, eventually resulted in Thomas traveling to Europe. The hope was that Thomas would have the opportunity to learn what methods were being used to educate the Deaf overseas. Despite initially unfruitful attempts to engage with a school in England, Thomas next traveled to the Royal Institution for the Deaf in Paris, and was rewarded with a much more successful outcome. During his visit to the institute, Thomas convinced Deaf faculty member, Laurent Clerc, to accompany him back to the United States to establish a school for the Deaf. It is reported that on the return trip, Laurent taught Thomas sign language, and Thomas taught Laurent English.

Once back on American soil, Thomas, Laurent and Mason Cogswell, raised funds to launch what became the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut (1817). Gallaudet served as principal of the school for 13 years, marrying and raising a family of 8 with one of the graduates. It was one of those children, Edward Miner Gallaudet, who was integral to the creation of Gallaudet College, named in honor of his father, which later came to be known as Gallaudet University (1986), a college for Deaf students that still remains in operation today.

Alice Cogswell became one of the first students to study at the American School for the Deaf and is credited with being a key figure behind the creation of American Sign Language (ASL), originally based on the French version brought to American by Laurent Clerc. Sadly, Alice died at the young age of 25, less than two weeks after the loss of her father, Mason, who had been such a loving and supportive force in an era when Deaf children were unfortunately often overlooked.

It has been noted that Gallaudet spent his later years writing children’s books, acting as an advocate for women’s higher education, setting up teacher training schools and returning to the ministry. What remains clear is that the curiosity, open mind and open heart which established Thomas Gallaudet’s journey in life positively reverberates throughout the world today. America is a better place because of the inclusiveness and devotion of individuals like Thomas Gallaudet, which is best illustrated in his own words,

“All of the children of silence must be taught to sing their own song.”

Thanks to Thomas Gallaudet, there are now more voices in the chorus.