Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (December 10, 1787 – September 10, 1851) was an acclaimed American pioneer in the education of the deaf. He founded and served as principal of the first institution for the education of the deaf in the United States. Opened in 1817, it is now known as the American School for the Deaf. Gallaudet was also instrumental in the creation of American Sign Language, which was later recognized as a true language, not just a code representing English words.
Gallaudet was a Congregationalist preacher, and his faith guided his life. He put aside his preaching to serve those he perceived to be in greater need, the deaf. His care and concern for deaf children led him to discover successful teaching methods that allowed deaf people to take their place in human society. Gallaudet University, the first university in the world designed for the deaf, was named in his honor.
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 10, 1787, the oldest of eight children. His family soon moved to Hartford, Connecticut, and as a young boy he attended school there. Gallaudet suffered from health problems from a young age, mainly due to his lungs.
He went to Yale University at age fourteen, earning his Bachelor's degree in 1805, at the top of his class. He then received his Master's degree in 1810. He excelled at all subjects and was well-liked by his classmates. He studied law for one year, studied teaching for two, and was actively involved in business for three years. He also attended Andover Theological Seminary from 1811-1814.
In 1814, Gallaudet became a preacher, and his strong Congregationalist faith guided him throughout his life. Although most of his life would not be actively spent preaching, Gallaudet continued to serve in this capacity, giving guest sermons that were said to uplift both congregations and individuals.
He declined an offer to be the minister of a large church in America, and thereafter Gallaudet devoted most of his life to the deaf. Upon her graduation from the the Hartford School for the Deaf, he married one of his students, Sophia Fowler. They had a happy marriage, with eight children.
In his later years, Gallaudet became interested in writing children's books. He died at his home in Hartford on September 10, 1851, at the age of 63, and was buried at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford.
Gallaudet put his wish to become a preacher aside when he met Alice Cogswell, the nine-year-old deaf daughter of a neighbor, Mason Cogswell. He taught her many words by writing them with a stick in the dirt. Then Cogswell asked Gallaudet to travel to Europe to study methods for teaching deaf students, especially those of the Braidwood family in London, England, and Edinburgh, Scotland. Gallaudet found that the Braidwoods were only willing to share their methods of teaching the deaf if he promised to be their assistant for three years, and not to share the knowledge he learned with others. Gallaudet felt it expedient to return to America to start teaching the deaf and did not want to wait three years. Also, he was not convinced that the Braidwood method was the best way to teach the deaf.
While still in Great Britain, Gallaudet met Abbé Sicard, head of the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets in Paris, and two of its deaf faculty members, Laurent Clerc and Jean Massieu. Sicard invited Gallaudet to Paris to study the school's method of teaching the deaf using manual communication. Impressed with the manual method, Gallaudet studied teaching methodology under Sicard, learning sign language from Massieu and Clerc, who were both highly educated deaf graduates of the school.
While at the school in Paris, Clerc offered to accompany him back to the United States and teach with Gallaudet, and the two sailed to America. The two men toured New England and successfully raised private and public funds to found a school for deaf students in Hartford, which later became known as the American School for the Deaf.
Young Alice was one of the first seven students in the United States. Some hearing students came to the school to learn as well. The school became well recognized and was visited by President James Monroe in 1818. Gallaudet at times had difficulty with the board members, who were not always in agreement with him on how the school should be run. Though he was principal and founder of the school, he was paid less than some of the teachers for several years.
Gallaudet served as principal of the school from its opening to 1830, when he retired due to health problems. During most of his time as principal he also taught a daily class. By the time he retired the school had 140 students and was widely recognized throughout the United States.
Gallaudet was offered other teaching leadership positions at special schools and universities, but declined these offers so he could write children's books and advance education. At this time there were very few children's books published in America, and Gallaudet felt a strong desire to assist in the training of children in this way. During a period of eight years, he worked mainly as a writer, and also devoted himself to other social causes he deemed worthy. Gallaudet wrote several religious-themed children's books, as well as a dictionary and a speller. He also took to caring for those with mental illness and served as chaplain of both an insane asylum and a county jail.
Gallaudet's son, Edward Miner Gallaudet (1837-1917), helped found the first college for the deaf in 1857, and was its first superintendent. The college was originally called the Columbia Institution, and in 1864, it became Gallaudet College, named after Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. In 1986, it became Gallaudet University. The university also offers education for those in elementary, middle, and high school levels. The primary language used on the Gallaudet University Campus is American Sign Language (ASL).
Gallaudet's other son, Thomas Gallaudet (1822-1902), became an Episcopal priest and also worked with the deaf.
Gallaudet's work helped to develop American Sign Language. Like any language, ASL has a complex history. It is a combination of the informal signs that were already in use by the deaf in America, French Sign Language, and efforts by Gallaudet and Clerc to add English grammar to some words.
While Gallaudet helped to bring signing and education to the deaf, it would not be until 1960 that William C. Stokoe, Jr. of Gallaudet University, proposed to linguists that American Sign Language was indeed a real language, and not just a signed code for English. Stokoe's studies resulted in American Sign Language becoming a respected and recognized language in the academic world.
Following Gallaudet's death in September of 1851, plans for a public tribute to Gallaudet began. Three years later a granite monument of Gallaudet in Hartford, was unveiled. The monument includes the inscription:
ERECTED TO THE MEMORY OF
- REV. THOMAS HOPKINS GALLAUDET, LL.D.
- BY THE DEAF AND DUMB
- OF THE UNITED STATES,
- AS A TESTIMONIAL
- OF PROFOUND GRATITUDE
- TO THEIR
- EARLIEST AND BEST FRIEND
- AND BENEFACTOR.
There is also a statue of Gallaudet on the campus of Gallaudet University of Gallaudet with Alice Cogswell, the young girl who inspired him to make his life's mission working with the deaf. There is a residence hall near where he lived in Hartford named in his honor at nearby Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. Gallaudet saw a barrier between the hearing world and the deaf and spent his adult life bridging the communication gap. He is a man of such renown in deaf education history that he was honored on a postage stamp by the U.S. Postal Service.
All links retrieved November 25, 2013.
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