Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet: A Look Into the Life of The Founder of the American School for the Deaf
On the 10th of December in the year 1787, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was born in the county of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Peter Wallace Gallaudet and Jane Hopkins both of which have Huguenot origins and who have deep roots in the Protestant religion (Barnard, 2010, p. 9). The eldest child of twelve children, he was often described as a skinny child who suffered from numerous health problems, which mainly stems from weak lungs. He also experienced nervous attacks, a frequent bout of nightmares and low self-esteem. These health problems prevented Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet from enjoying his childhood with his younger siblings and friends with rigorous physical activities, which was something he seem to prefer. However, it did not prevent him from educating himselfboth in academics and religion.
Their family soon moved to Hartford, Connecticut where he enrolled to and attended grammar school. At the age of fourteen, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet took the entrance exam at Yale University, where his high test scores qualified him to start as a sophomore during his first year at the university. He excelled academically and was well-liked both by his professors and his peers. By 1805 he earned his Bachelor’s degree at the top of his class. In 1808, by the age of twenty-one, he received his Master’s degree (NWE, 2013, p. 4).
His fragile health and his inability to decide what he wanted to do with his life led to his becoming a law apprentice, which he quit after a year due to the smoke from the pipes used by the lawyers and their clients. This made it difficult for him to breathe. He was then offered a teaching position at Yale which he enjoyed, as he was well-liked by his students, but he eventually had to quit, again due to his lung problem. Thinking that travel and fresh air might help with his lung condition, he decided to try his luck asa businessman, travelling and doing sales which took him to Ohio and even as far as Kentucky. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet sold his merchandise during the day. During the evenings, he was invited to stay at the houses of families he met during his travels. During his stay with these families, he would be seen to teach the children geography, history and stories taken from the Bible. This experience, together with his strong religious background, inspired him to pursue training in theology (Enders, 2017, p. 5).
When he came back, he attended Andover Theological Seminary where he studied a two-year course after which, in 1814, he became a preacher. He was offered a job as a minister, but the nervous breakdowns which he suffered since he was a child, prevented him from accepting the post. He decided to go back to Connecticut for a visit and stayed at his parents’ house where he was able to observe the young daughter of their neighbor named Alice Cogswell, who is both deaf and mute (Enders, 2017, p. 5).
Based on stories told, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet saw that while his younger brothers and sisters were playing, they excluded this young girl from joining them. Trying to investigate the reason why, he found out that Alice Cogswell was deaf and mute. He then tried to communicate with her by pointing to his hat and writing out the letters H-A-T on the dirt which Alice understood. This inspired him to try to help educate her more which led him to meet Alice’s father Mason Cogswell, who is a wealthy doctor (Enders, 2017, p. 5).
Appreciating what Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet is trying to do for his daughter, Mason Cogswell encouraged him to study methods on how to teach deaf students, which at that time were only offered in Europe as there were still no schools that taught deaf children in the United States. Mason Cogswell then financed Gallaudet’s travel to Europe where he first travelled to England and met with the Braidwood family (NWE, 2013, 8)..
The Braidwood family was known for their various schools in London, England and Edinburgh, Scotland,that taught deaf students the Braidwood method, which focused on the oral method of education wherein the students were taught and expected to master both lip reading and speech. Although the Braidwood family was not too keen on sharing their method with Gallaudet, they finally agreed to do so but only if Gallaudet promised to become their apprentice for three years, keep the knowledge to himself and not share whatever he learned with anyone else, and pay the exorbitant fees they requested in order to learn. With Gallaudet’s funds running low and not really convinced that the Braidwood method is really as effective as the Braidwood family claimed it to be, Gallaudet declined and prepared to go back to the United States (NWE, 2013, 8).
However, before he had the opportunity to leave, Gallaudet was able to meet AbbéRoch-Ambroise Sicard, the head of the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muetsá Paris or the French Royal Institute for the Deaf, together with two of its deaf faculty members namely, Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc through a public demonstration of their method which they called the French model (DHMS, 2017, 4). The demonstration showed that while Sicard communicated with the audience through his voice, he asked the same questions to Clerc through sign, which Clerc then responded to by writing out fluent and comprehensive answers on a chalk board. Amazed by the demonstration, Gallaudet approached the group. Upon learning the reason why Gallaudet was in England, Sicard offered to bring Gallaudet to Paris to study at his school for free.
Here, Gallaudet learned the school’s method of using manual communication. While Sicard himself taught Gallaudet the teaching methodology of the manual method of communication, both Massieu and Clerc taught him sign language. After learning all he can from the school, Gallaudet decided it was time to go back to the United States. Laurent Clerc offered to come back with him to the United States not only to help establish the school, but also to help educate the students as one of the school’s teaching staff.
The return trip to the United States kept Gallaudet and Cogswell busy as they tried to raise funds from donations from rich private benefactors and get the approval of the Connecticut Legislature to establish the first public school that would educate the deaf people in the United States. With the help of Laurent Clerc, who was the best example of what education could do for person who is deaf, the approval for the incorporation and the donations easily came through thereby establishing the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons on April 15, 1817. The institution is now American School for the Deaf (Barnard, 2010, p. 93).
The school’s seven students who were the first to enroll included Alice Cogswell, and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet not only became its founder, but was also its first principal. Soon it also accepted students who can hear, but would like to learn how to do sign language. In 1818, the school was visited and recognized by then President James Monroe which led to a government grant of a three-story building on a large piece of land for the growing number of students of the school.
On August 1821, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet married a deaf student, Sophia Fowler, who graduated from his school. When the couple had their first child, Sophia was worried that the child might also be deaf like her, upon testing. However, it was seen that the child was able to hear. The couple’s seven other children were also able to hear normally.
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet’s direction, his supervision of the school as its principal, the public appearances he made in order to promote and educate the people about the importance of teaching people who are deaf and mute, his writings which focused on theology for children and the youth, as well as archives regarding the education of the deaf and mute, made a great impact on making the school widely renowned in the United States. In 1830, after thirteen years of being a teacher and the school principal, Gallaudet retired due to health conditions brought about by his lung problem. He declined other offers to join other universities as a faculty member or lead other schools for special needs and devoted his time to raising his children and writing books for children. He took care of the people who were suffering from mental illness by serving as a chaplain for an insane asylum and a county jail (EWB, 2017, p. 5). Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet passed away on September 10, 1851 at his home in Hartford, Connecticut at the age of sixty-three (EWB, 2017, p. 5).
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet’s fame is not only due to the fact that he was instrumental in establishing the American School for the Deaf in the United States, but also due to the legacy that he left behind through his works and through his family. The numerous books he wrote which focused on educating the children and the youth, as well as those which he wrote in order to inform and educate the people about the importance of educating everyone including those who are deaf, mute and the blind. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet also had the vision to see and understand that the French method of communicating with the deaf and mute which was being demonstrated by Sicard and her group would be groundbreaking in terms of communication, to the point that American Sign Language (ASL) has been officially recognized as an autonomous language in the 1960s.
There were works done by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet’s family: in particular, his two sons Thomas Gallaudet, who was an Episcopal priest who also worked with deaf people; and especially his youngest Edward Miner Gallaudet who followed in his father’s footsteps by establishing the first college for deaf people and serving as the college’s president for forty-six years. The college which was later renamed in 1986 as the Gallaudet University, after his father, now offers education for grade school deaf children through the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School, and for middle school and high school through the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, both of which could be found inside the Gallaudet University Campus.
Barnard, H. (2010). Tribute to Gallaudet. Massachusetts: Applewood Books.
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Encyclopedia of World Biography (EWB) (2017). “Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.” Retrieved
New World Encyclopedia (NWE) (2013). Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Retrieved April 9,