Laurent Clerc 1785 - 1869
Louis Laurent Marie Clerc was born on December 26, 1785 in La
Balme-les-Grottes, France. He was born in to a well known family.
His father, Joseph Francis Clerc, was the royal civil attorney,
justice of the peace, and served as the mayor of their village from
1780 to 184. His mother’s father was a notary public in a nearby
Clerc was profoundly deaf. When he was about a year old, he had been
left alone for a few moments, in a chair by the fire; he fell and
badly burned his face. The scar left by the accident inspired his
name sign, two fingers brushed against the right cheek. His family
believed it was the accident that deprived him of his hearing and
sense of smell; but he may have been born that way.
When Laurent was seven years old, his mother took him to a physician
in Lyons, a city close by La Balma, to be treated for his deafness.
After two weeks of painful injections of liquid into his ears,
Laurent returned home with no cure.
Laurent’s early childhood was spent exploring the village, helping
take care of their cows, turkeys and horses. He did not go to school
and did not learn to write. “My brother and sisters communicated
with me in “home sign,” gestures that were scarcely more than
pantomime but had become abbreviated with use.” (Lane 1984).
However, he received neither an education nor an organized mode of
In 1797, when Laurent was twelve years old, his uncle after whom he
was named, Laurent Clerc, enrolled him in the Instit National de
Jeune Sourds-Mirets in Paris. This was the first public school for
the deaf in the world. The school was started by a priest named Abbe
De L’Epee. This school became the model for hundreds of other
schools that were to be established later. The school was directed
by Abbe Rock-Ambroise Sicard.
Laurent’s first teacher, Jean Massieu, was 25 years old and deaf
like him. Massieu became his mentor and lifelong friend.
Clerc excelled in his studies. However, Abbe Margaron, an assistant
teacher, tried teaching him to pronounce words. Clerc had difficulty
in pronouncing certain syllables which infuriated Margaron. “One day
he became so impatient he gave me a violent blow on the chin; I bit
my tongue and dissolved in tears” (Lane 1984). He swore he would
never speak again. This experience strengthened his belief that
signing is the method of communication by which deaf students should
Clerc learned to draw and to compose in the printing office of the
Institution. After just eight years of schooling, Clerc was chosen
to become a tutor and a year later was hired as a teacher.
In 1815, Clerc and Massieu went with Sicard to England where they
lectured and demonstrated their teaching methods. One of their
lectures was attended by a minster from Hartford, Connecticut,
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.
Mr. Gallaudet had become concerned that there were no schools for
the deaf in the United States. His friend and neighbor, Mason Fitch
Cogswell had a daughter, Alice Gogswell that was born deaf. They had
gathered support from friends and members of their community, and
Gallaudet traveled to Europe to learn about teaching methods for the
Earlier, Cogswell had loaned a book to Gallaudet – the Theorie des
Signes, written by Sicard. Now that Gallaudet was in London, he was
introduced by a Member of Parliament to Sicard. Sicard then
introduced Gallaudet to Clerc. Clerc and others invited Gallaudet to
visit and attend daily classes in their Institution in Paris. He
gladly accepted the invitation.
By 1816, Clerc had become Sicard’s chief assistant. He taught the
highest class in the Institution. Gallaudet was given private
lessons by Clerc. Gallaudet was so impressed by Clerc that he
invited him to go to America and help him establish a school for the
Clerc was only 28 years old and knew the work would be enormous.
However he was motivated by the fact that other deaf Americans had
no language and were receiving no education. So on June 18, 1816,
Clerc and Gallaudet left for America. The voyage lasted fifty-two
days, where Clerc used that time to teach Gallaudet signs, and in
return received tutoring in the English language from Gallaudet.
Clerc, through the interpretation of Gallaudet, delivered many
speeches and demonstrations of their teaching methods in order to
get public, legislative, and financial support for their goals. They
raised $12,000 from the public and an additional $5,000 from the
Connecticut General Assembly.
“On April 15, 1817, rented rooms made up their school which opened
with seven students – Alice Cogswell being the first to enroll.” (Canlas,
1999). The school was originally called the Connecticut Asylum at
Hartford for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, but is now
called the American School for the Deaf. Gallaudet served as the
principal and Clerc was the head teacher. Clerc devoted his life to
the interests of this institution which was very successful.
On May 3, 1819, Clerc married Miss Elizabeth Boardman, a former
pupil. A year later, their first child Elizabeth Victoria, was born.
Clerc taught students and also trained future teachers and
administrators, both hearing and deaf. Many of their students went
on to become productive deaf citizens and educated deaf leaders,
spreading his teachings and making Clerc the greatest influence in
establishing new deaf schools in the States at that time. Clerc’s
students and trained teachers founded other schools around the
nation, using Clerc’s teaching methods. In all, more than thirty
residential schools were established all over the nation during
Although Clerc never attended college, he was given several honorary
degrees for his pioneering work in deaf education.
Clerc’s mode of instruction was French signs. His students learned
those signs for their studies. However, for their own use, they also
borrowed or altered some of those signs and blended them with their
own native sign language. As the Hartford students and teachers
widely spread Clerc’s teaching in his original and in their modified
signs, deaf communication acquired an identifiable form. This
gradually developed into the American Sign Language, used in
education and integrated into the personal lives of America’s deaf
population and its culture.
Clerc died on the 18th of July in 1869 at the age of 84. He was
respected and honored by all. “He ranks as one of the greatest deaf
men of all time, and is probably second only to Gallaudet as a
benefactor of the deaf of this country.” (Carroll, 1991)
Canlas, L. (1999). Laurent Clerc: Apostle to
the Deaf People of the New World. Gallaudet University Laurent Clerc
National Deaf Center. Retrieved 26, Apr. 2008:
Carroll, C. & Lane, H. (1991). Laurent Clerc.
The Story of His Early Years. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.
Lane, H. (1984). When the Mind Hears: A
History of the Deaf. New