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Happy Birthday, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Founder of the American School for the Deaf

Written By Jennifer Ferris
Last updated: February 22, 2023

December 10, 2009

by Jennifer Ferris

When Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet met a 9-year-old deaf neighbor, he was determined to find a way to communicate with her. After traveling the world researching the language of the deaf, Gallaudet returned to America to found the American School for the Deaf.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet’s Early Days

Born in Philadelphia on December 10, 1787, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was the eldest of 12 children. His father was religious and frequently discussed his faith with his children. Studious and quiet, with a slight frame, Gallaudet preferred spending time on his own, frequently wandering off to fields or woods to contemplate nature.

When he was young, Gallaudet and his family moved to Hartford, Connecticut.  At the age of 14 he began attending Yale as a sophomore. Popular among his classmates, he graduated with the highest honors at the age of 17. The next year he began studying law at Yale, but ill health, specifically lung problems, prevented him from continuing in that practice.

Galluadet’s Notable Accomplishments

After spending time researching and studying literature, Gallaudet came to believe his true calling was the pulpit. He entered Andover Seminary in 1811 and was ordained three years later. He lived with his father during this time, occasionally giving sermons at the local church, but mostly studying religious doctrine.

Sources in this story:

  • Save Our Deaf Schools: The Life of Thomas Gallaudet
  • Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center: A Father, a Son and a University
  • Disability Museum: The Life of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet
  • Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet
  • The Columbia Encyclopedia: Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet
  • Gallaudet University: The Legend Begins

The course of Gallaudet’s life took a radical turn when he met his neighbor’s daughter, who was deaf. The parents of 9-year-old Alice Cogswell had attempted to educate her, but could not find a way to communicate with her well enough. Gallaudet became convinced there must be a better way to teach children who were deaf and he embarked on a quest to find it.

Initially, Gallaudet found some success scratching words in the dirt, but he was eager to find an unwritten form of communication. Cogswell’s father convinced Gallaudet to travel to France to learn the manual form of sign language used there. Upon his return, the two planned to open a school.

Gallaudet sailed to England in 1815, going first to a school for the deaf headed by the Braidwood family and run by Joseph Watson. The instructors there considered their teaching methods proprietary and refused to share them with him without his working at the school for three years. After leaving there, Gallaudet saw a handbill in London advertising a public demonstration of the teaching methods of French instructors for the deaf.

The instructors invited Gallaudet back to their school and spent the next few months giving him lessons in how to express words, needs and emotions, all through contortions of his hands. One of the teachers, Laurent Clerc, volunteered to return to the United States to help found the school. In 1817, Clerc and Gallaudet opened the doors of the school, now known as the American School for the Deaf, in Hartford, Connecticut. Cogswell and six other children were the school’s first students.

The Rest of the Story

The Man and His Work

The school was a success. Gallaudet began training others in the teaching of students who were deaf. In 1821, he married a former student and had two sons with her. Edward Miner Gallaudet founded the first college for people who are deaf, Gallaudet University, which to this day provides education for all ages and educational levels within the deaf community.

Thomas Gallaudet, Gallaudet’s other son, followed his father’s other path; he was ordained as an Episcopal priest. He worked to bring religious services to the deaf community and established services in sign language.

Near the end of his life, Gallaudet broadened his scope to include advocating for all educational pursuits. He supported training colleges for teachers and higher education for women. Using his spiritual training, he wrote several religious primers for children, along with a speller and a dictionary. He died on September 10, 1851 at the age of 63.

Charles Eames

Jennifer Ferris, a passionate science enthusiast, intertwines her love for exploration and discovery in every word she writes. With a background in both biology and physics, she brings a unique perspective to her compelling science literature. Her ability to convey complex ideas in an accessible and engaging way has made Ferris a beloved author for readers of all ages.

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