A chance meeting between theology graduate Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and nine year old Alice Cogswell, Gallaudet’s deaf neighbor, launched a legacy that continues to this day.

The former traveling salesman and aspiring itinerant preacher was engaged by Alice’s father, physician Mason Cogswell, to study the methods of the renowned Braidwood family for teaching the deaf. Gallaudet set sail to Great Britain only to be disappointed with the Braidwood oral method program.

While in London, however, he chanced to meet the French educators Abbe Sicard, Laurent Clerc, and Jean Massieu, of the Institut Royal des Sourds-Muets in Paris, who were abroad promoting their success with a manual communication method of instruction.

Impressed with the trio he joined them in Paris and learned as much as he could of the language and their methods. On his return to the United States, he invited deaf instructor Laurent Clerc to join him and, in 1817, they established the first permanent school for deaf children in the States, eventually known as the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.

Gallaudet and Clerc continued to promote the advancement of education for deaf children across the country. In 1857, Gallaudet’s youngest son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, took up his father’s cause when he and his deaf mother, Sophia Fowler Gallaudet, were invited by Amos Kendall to run the newly established Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind in Washington, D.C.

Kendall’s involvement with this new school also sprang from a chance encounter. A local businessman, investor, and former U.S. Postmaster General, Kendall was approached one day by a gentleman making the rounds of the city’s wealthy families to raise funds to establish a school for the unfortunate deaf and blind orphans he had in tow.

Kendall soon discovered this unscrupulous man was nothing more than a con artist. He took custody of the children and then used several acres of his estate to make the school a reality.

With Kendall’s resources and connections and under young Gallaudet’s leadership and vision, the fledgling school grew and flourished, eventually expanding to provide instruction for aspiring teachers of the deaf and and to become the world’s first and still only institution of higher education uniquely devoted to deaf and hard of hearing students.

Want to learn more about Gallaudet’s rich history? Check out these related links:


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