ASL University | Bookstore | Catalog | Dictionary | Lessons | Resources | Syllabi | Library

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet:

Bethany Polley
December 31, 2004


Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was born on December 10, 1787 in Hartford, Connecticut. The eldest in the Gallaudet family, he would eventually have eleven other siblings. Although Thomas was named for his grandfather, a rugged sea captain, he could aptly be described as scrawny. Throughout his childhood, he was hindered by several breathing problems. These problems would affect him later on in life as well. Thomas would rather sit and dream then romp about with his brother and friends. Thomas was determined to make up what he could not do physically, by being the head of the class academically.

            Thomas took the Yale entrance exams when he was fourteen years old. Considering the results of the exams, all of his previous studies must have paid off. Due to his scores, he skipped freshman year and was accepted at a sophomore level. Young Thomas enjoyed college life. Within a month of starting at the college, he joined the chess team, easily becoming the star of the team. Tying for valedictorian was an example of how Thomas excelled in his academics. He unjustly lost the tie when the presidents of the college determined the outcome, not on grades or merit, but on height.

            Following college, Thomas held down several jobs before finding his true calling. Initially working at a law firm, he quit after only one year when his breathing became labored due to pipe smoke. Later, Yale offered him a tutoring position at the school. Although Thomas was well liked by his students, he resigned only two years later when his breathlessness continued. Finding hope for his breathing, he took an outdoors job as a traveling salesman. During his travels through the wilderness of Kentucky and Ohio, Thomas stayed with the families to which he sold merchandise. While at their houses he would teach the education-starved children stories from the Bible. Thomas lost much of his paycheck when he would give the children pretty "bows or jackknifes."(Neimark, 1983)

Approximately a year after his salesman endeavor, at the age of twenty-six, Thomas went to Andover College and received his minister's license. Becoming a visiting minister, he decided to return home during the weekdays. His life changed one day while he was at home. Watching one of his younger brothers play outside, he noticed a little girl standing away from the crowd of children, blankly staring at them. Pulling his brother aside, Thomas questioned him and found out the girl's name was Alice Cogswell. He also found out she was deaf and could not talk. With much determination, Thomas went over to the little girl. Removing his hat in front of the little girl, he preceded to write "hat" in the dirt. Then, alternating between pointing to the word in the dirt and the hat in his hand, Alice soon was enlightened that the word in the dirt symbolized the material hat in his hand.

Alice's father, Dr. Cogswell, came home in the middle of this lesson and watched in amazement as Thomas taught his daughter when everyone else had given up hope. Thomas and Dr. Cogswell went into the house to discuss Alice and her condition. Dr. Cogswell told Thomas of a French form of communication in which they use their hands to speak. The two men decided Thomas would teach Alice the names of everything in the world around her in sign. After watching the obvious change in his daughter, Dr. Cogswell called together a group of merchants and educators from around the city. He and Thomas persuaded the men to open a school specifically for deaf people. They also managed to get the merchants and educators to pay for Thomas to go abroad and learn the way the French communicated with their deaf.

 [Editorial note:  In a message dated 3/25/2006 11:48:52 AM Pacific Standard Time, "JAM" a teacher at the American School for the Deaf  writes:  THG did not immediately go to France to learn the manual communication method.  He went to England, requested tutelage from the Braidwood family (who's educational system was for profit) but was fortunate to meet Laurent Clerc who invited him to his school in Paris.  Alice did learn some fingerspelling, and was tutored by Lydia Sigourney for a short period prior to the opening of the Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb at Hartford (as it was initially named).]

After several delays Thomas eventually got to France. While in France he met Laurent Clerc. Laurent was a French deaf man who taught Thomas to sign fluently. After only three months in the French sign school, Thomas persuaded Laurent to return with him to America.  The two men traveled to America and started to campaign for money to start the first American school for the deaf. The cost for the school was $15,000, but amazingly when they added up the donations that they received from people, they found the total was more than $17,000.

Gathering the council of merchants and educators, they appealed to them the idea of a school for deaf people. The Council found an empty building and the American School for the Deaf was born. The school doors opened on April 15, 1817. "The first student to enroll was Alice Cogswell" (Degering, 1987). Other students soon followed until the school had thirty-three in all. Thomas had undertaken the role of not only a teacher, but also took the role of principal as well. The school attracted quite a bit of public attention. United States President Monroe was the most prominent visitor. Monroe's visit inspired students of the school to create a sign for "president".

Thomas fell in love with one of students by the name of Sophia Fowler. They were wed in the summer of 1821. Sophia was concerned at first that she would bear children who were deaf, but Thomas assured her that even if she did, he would still love them dearly. Thomas and Sophia eventually had eight hearing children. Thomas worked as the principal of the school for 15 years. He then became an author. He authored books that became popular all over the world. When his children came of age to be educated, he chose to school them and many other neighborhood children at his home. All of the children grew academically and became successful.

 In 1851, Thomas and Sophia became sick with a severe bout of dysentery. Sophia soon recovered but Thomas only got worse. In September 1851, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet passed away, leaving a legacy for every deaf person in America. He started a trend, which would make a life changing impact on deaf people everywhere in the country. His son Edward went on to open a college for the deaf in Washington, DC. The college was eventually named Gallaudet College in remembrance of Thomas.


 Degering, E. Gallaudet Friend of the Deaf. Washington DC: Kendall Green, 1964.

Neimark, A. A Deaf Child Listened: Thomas Gallaudet, Pioneer in American Education. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1983.

Van Cleve, J. Deaf History Unveiled: Interpretations from the New Scholarship. Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press, 1993.

*  Want to help support ASL University?  It's easy DONATE  (Thanks!)

Another way to help is to buy something from Dr. Bill's "Bookstore."

Want even more ASL resources?  Visit the "ASL Training Center!"  (Subscription Extension of ASLU)  

*  Also check out Dr. Bill's channel:

You can learn American Sign Language (ASL) online at American Sign Language University  
ASL resources by    Dr. William Vicars