Alice Cogswell was a precocious little girl from Hartford, Conn. She was just nine years old in 1814 when she met her neighbor Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a young Yale graduate who, after apprenticing to be a lawyer, decided to enter the ministry. Together they profoundly improved the lives of deaf people in America.
Yale College drew Gallaudet from Philadelphia to Connecticut when he was just 14. He came with ideas of studying law, making a career as a trader or entering the ministry. Gallaudet graduated at 17 with a bachelor’s degree. He later returned for a master’s degree and became an ordained minister. Had he proceeded directly into a ministry, deaf people would have lost one of their greatest champions.
But little nine-year-old Alice pulled him in the direction that made them both beloved heroes to the deaf community. Alice, at age two, had lost her hearing as the result of meningitis.
Deafness in those days was not well understood. Prior to the 1800s, many thought it was a mental disorder. Ministers unhelpfully declared deaf children were a punishment from God given to wicked parents. While some of these superstitions were fading, for deaf children this lingering ignorance meant a very difficult life. The Cogswell family interacted with Alice and they had developed a rudimentary way of communicating, but her father, Mason Cogswell, wanted more for her.
Legend has it that Gallaudet befriended Alice when he noticed other children weren’t playing with her. Gallaudet first began teaching Alice to spell objects using a stick and writing in the dirt. Seeing his daughter’s progress, Mason Cogswell persuaded Gallaudet to do more.
Gallaudet had reason to listen to Mason, an accomplished surgeon, son of a Connecticut governor and prominent member of Connecticut society. Mason used his connections and influence to raise money to send Gallaudet to Europe so he could study methods for teaching deaf people. His goal was to establish a school in America.
At the time, a schism divided the tiny community of deaf educators between those who favored teaching the deaf to speak and those who favored sign language. In the U.S. there existed no standardized sign language, nor any consensus about training the deaf.
Gallaudet first traveled to England to visit the Braidwoods Academy for the Deaf and Dumb. Thomas Braidwoods was not welcoming, however, preferring to keep the school’s methods proprietary unless Gallaudet agreed to pay him for each student he taught. Gallaudet was also not completely convinced Braidwoods’ methods, which relied on a combination of oral teaching and gestures, were the best available.
Gallaudet then went to France, where he was welcomed by Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard, principal of Institut Royal des Sourds-Muets. Gallaudet studied the school’s method of sign language instruction. His money was running out, though, and it became clear he would not be able to return to America and establish a school himself. Instead, he persuaded one of the school’s teachers, Laurent Clerc, to return to New England with him. On the sea voyage to America, Clerc gave Gallaudet instruction in sign language and Gallaudet instructed Clerc in English.
With Mason Cogswell’s support, the two set about raising money to found a school for the deaf in America. In 1817, the American School for the Deaf opened its doors in Hartford, and it has not closed them since.
The first class at the school contained nine students, Alice Cogswell among them. Gallaudet and Clerc would work together running the school until 1830. That was the year Mason Cogswell died, and just 13 days later Alice, miserable over the loss, died as well at the tragic of age 25.
Her legacy, however, was already established. Following her graduation in 1824, Alice travelled widely and opened people’s eyes to the reality of deafness. She and her fellow students had shown the world that what they thought they knew about deaf people was wrong. That a system of education was all that was needed for deaf people to achieve the same success as hearing people.
In 1830, Gallaudet decided to turn his attention back to his ministry and writing.
Gallaudet’s sons Edward and Thomas, however, would carry on their father’s work. Shortly after Thomas Gallaudet died in 1851, Edward went to work at the American School and two years later was recruited to lead the first college for the deaf, now known as Gallaudet University. Thomas went on to become an Episcopal priest and establish a home for the deaf and a church for the deaf.