Would you believe that the first outstanding deaf teacher in America was a Frenchman? His name was Laurent Clerc. He became a friend of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and together they founded America’s first school for the deaf.

Laurent Clerc was born in a small village near Lyons, France, on December 26, 1785. He was born hearing, but when he was one year old, he fell into a fire. As a result, he lost both his hearing and his sense of smell. The right side of his face was badly burned, and was scarred for his whole life. However, in later years, the scars only made him look more distinguished. The sign for his name was even based on the scar.

At the age of 12, Laurent entered the Royal Institution for the Deaf in Paris where he excelled in his studies. After he graduated, the school asked him to stay on as an assistant teacher. He was a dedicated teacher; and consequently, was promoted to teach the highest class.

Meanwhile, in America, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was studying to be a minister when he met a young deaf girl, Alice Cogswell. He was upset to learn that there were no schools for the deaf in America. He was very concerned about the lack of educational opportunities for the deaf. Therefore, in 1815, Gallaudet sailed to London, England to seek ideas on how to teach deaf people. However, he was unable to get help and he became frustrated. While he was there, he met a French educator of the deaf who invited him to go to Paris to spend three months learning at the Royal Institution for the Deaf, the school where Laurent Clerc was teaching.

Gallaudet accepted the offer, and went to the Royal Institution for the Deaf, where Clerc became his Sign Language teacher. The two worked and studied well together. When the time came for Gallaudet to return to America, he asked Clerc to come with him. Clerc accepted on one condition: that he would stay in America only a short time.

The two men set sail on June 18, 1816. The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean took 52 days; however, Clerc and Gallaudet put the time to good use. Clerc studied English, and Gallaudet studied sign language. They discussed the school for the deaf which they planned to open. On the long trip, they had many conversations about education and deafness. The year after they arrived, they founded a school for the deaf in Harford, Connecticut.

At the school, Clerc led a busy life. He taught signs to Principal Gallaudet; he taught the pupils; and he taught hearing men who came to the school to study deaf education. At that time, the state would only pay for each student to stay at the school for five years. Therefore, Clerc had to teach his pupils as much as he could as quickly as possible. He and Gallaudet also assisted in founding other schools for the deaf.

Once, Clerc came to Washington, D.C. because he was asked to appear before the Congress of the United States. He met President James Monroe, who became interested in Sign Language when he observed Clerc signing.

In 1819, Clerc married Eliza Crocker Boardman, one of his pupils. They had six children. He retired from teaching in 1858. Although he had intended to return to France, he never did. He died on July 18, 1869 in the United States.

Adapted from: Goodstein, A. & Walworth, M. (1979). “Interesting Deaf Americans.” Washington, DC: Gallaudet University. Used with permission from the Gallaudet University Alumni Association. Revised by Vivion Smith.

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