Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet:
April 28, 2003
( 1787 - 1851)
Gallaudet was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1787. His family
moved when he was a small boy to Hartford, Connecticut. Thomas had
eight siblings; even though he was the oldest of the Galluadet children, he
was small. Thomas was born with a sickness; this sickness caused him
limitations on his physical abilities. The doctors explained his
condition to Mrs. Galluadet when he was born as a weakness that he may
outgrow with a health diet. As much as Mrs. Galluadet tried, Thomas
was always limited in his physical abilities. Thomas never complained
openly about his limitations but inside he was hurt and frustrated when the
doctors would listened to his chest and hear rattling sounds. Thomas was
tired of always lagging behind his friends and most of all he was tired of
being different (Bowen, 1995).
In spite of all his physical problems, intellectually
Thomas was a brilliant student. At the age of 14, he excelled so well
on Yale University’s entrance-exams that they accepted him into college as a
sophomore. After graduating from Yale, Thomas went to work for the
Honorable Chauncy Goodrich in Hartford to study law. After a year of
study and trial work, Thomas decided it was to demanding physically.
He knew that although he did not like to leave anything unfinished, law was
not his ideal profession. Thomas held a variety of jobs trying to find
his calling in life. He wrote for newspapers and magazines, for a
while but no real satisfaction came to him. In 1808, he received an
invitation from Yale to take a position as a tutor, which would also allow
him to work towards his Masters degree. He accepted this offer and
received his Master degree in two years. Once again, due the poor
health he had to drop out. From here, he worked for a New York firm
and traveled as Yankee trader in the states of Ohio and Kentucky.
After not finding satisfaction in this profession he felt a calling to the
ministry. In 1812, he quit this job and enrolled in the Andover
Theological Seminary. Thomas graduate from the Andover Theological
Seminary in 1814 and was ordained as a Congregation minister.
Unfortunately, once again, his illness prevented him from holding a
full-time pastorship (DeGering, 1964).
Thomas had struggled, all his life to balance his
physical weakness with his strong will and sense of purpose. He found
his purpose in life when he met a small girl named Alice Cogswell.
Alice was the daughter of the Mason Cogswell, the prominent Hartford
Physician and neighbors with the Gallaudet family. One day after
coming home from the Seminary to rest, Thomas was sitting outside watching
the neighborhood kids play. He noticed a small girl playing by
herself. This puzzled Thomas so he called to one of his younger
brothers, twelve year old Teddy who was playing with the kids. Teddy
told Thomas that Alice couldn’t play with the other kids because she was
deaf. Thomas instructed Teddy to send Alice over to him. Thomas
and Alice looked closely at each, Thomas knew that Alice was interested when
he tried to talk to her but he realized she could not communicate with him.
This intrigued Thomas, he really wanted to communicate with Alice he thought
maybe if she learned how to write. He took a stick and started scratching
three letters in the sand. H-A-T, he wrote. He gave Alice the
hat. At first Alice had no response, until he wrote the letters again
and pointed to the hat in her hand. He had to do this several times
until finally Alice pointed to the hat that was now in his hand.
Thomas even taught Alice her name. Alice was so proud of herself, Dr.
Cogswell came home and Alice ran to meet him. Alice drug Dr. Cogswell
over to Thomas so he could help her show her father her newly found
independence. Thomas handed Alice the hat and she gave it to her
She grabbed the stick and in the sand wrote H-A-T.
Dr. Cogswell was so impressed and he grew even more excited as Alice spelled
It was from this incident that Dr. Cogswell later
approached Thomas about starting a school; he had come to realize that no
one knew how to teach deaf people in America. Dr. Cogswell wanted
Thomas to travel to Europe to learn how to teach the deaf. After
raising enough money, Thomas was off to London, England. Thomas was
extremely disappointed with the school for the deaf in London; he found the
school owners were the Braidwood’s and ran by Joseph Watson, a nephew.
Thomas was not welcomed by them. However, they did agree to teach
Thomas their way of teaching the deaf, but only with strict guidelines.
Thomas would have to agree to teach at the school for three years, and then
they might share their secret with him. He would also have to keep
their secret, even when back in America. Thomas would not have been
able to show anyone else how to teach the deaf. Further, Thomas would
have to bring back to America one of the Braidwood’s family member to be his
assistant in the new school. Thomas knew he did not have three years
to be delayed nor did he want all the restrictions on teaching. Thomas
answered no to the invitation. Thomas learned not long after this
disappointment that French teachers of deaf students were visiting London.
They were demonstrating French methods to the English people. Thomas
went to see the French teachers; there were two men, Jean Massieu, and
Laurent Clerc. Thomas watched as the two teachers answer questions in
sign. He was amazed; he had never seen sign language. After the
demonstration, Thomas new he had to speak to the two men. They invited
him to their school. No strings attached. Thomas went to the
school and stayed for two months. He took lesson from both teachers
but Laurent Clerc felt that Thomas was learning signs quickly. Laurent
Clerc agreed to travel to America and help Thomas start his school. He
would continue to teach Thomas sign language and also show America that deaf
people could be well-educated. After returning to America, the two
opened up the school named the American Asylum at Hartford for the Education
and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb. The school was named this until 1895
then it was changed to The American School for the Deaf. Thomas was
the principal of the school and both men taught. The school started
with six students, Alice Cogswell was one. Thomas ended up marrying
one of his students (Sophia Fowler) after she graduated from the school.
They eventually had eight children. In 1830 Thomas retired from being
the principal of the school. There were hundreds of deaf students by
then that could read and write. There were deaf schools in New York,
Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Ohio (http://clercenter.gallaudet.edu/InfoToGo/751.html).
In retirement Thomas spent his time writing,
preaching, supporting deaf education and sign language. Thomas also
loved writing children’s books. Thomas died on September 10, 1851, at
the age of 63.
Bowen, Andy Russell. (1995). A World of Knowing: A
Story about Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books,
DeGering, Etta. (1964). Gallaudet Friend of the Deaf.
New York: David McKay Company, Inc.
Carroll, Cathryn. (1996 – last modified 1998, April
28). A father, a son, and a University.
Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. Galluadet
University. Retrieved March 6, 2003: http://clerccenter.gallaudet.edu/InfoToGo/751.html.