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Thomas Gallaudet ‘14: Crossing the borders of silence

Thomas Gallaudet

An 1805 graduate of Yale, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet entered Andover Theological Seminary in 1812, after several years as an apprentice lawyer and traveling salesman. He graduated in 1814 and, not much later, embarked on one of the most remarkable careers in the history of American education.

Soon after entering the ministry, Gallaudet met Alice Cogswell, the 9-year-old deaf daughter of a physician neighbor, who asked his help in educating her. At the time, the deaf were often profoundly isolated in America, where no schools were equipped to teach them. At his neighbor’s request, Gallaudet traveled to Europe and returned from France with a trained teacher and the latest ideas for how to educate the hard of hearing.

In 1816, Gallaudet founded the first American school for the deaf in Hartford, CT. With his colleagues at the school, Gallaudet blended a French system of sign language with elements of signing developed in the United States. His American sources included a sign vocabulary created on Martha’s Vineyard, where there was then a high proportion of inherited deafness among the island-born population. (On 19th-century Martha's Vineyard, signing was thus almost universal, used by a "bilingual" population and not just the hard of hearing.) Gallaudet’s system evolved into what is American Sign Language today.

Thomas Gallaudet was later appointed to the first professorship in the philosophy of education in the United States at New York University. Thomas Gallaudet's son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, became the founding superintendent of the "Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind" in Washington, DC, chartered by Congress in 1857. In 1894, the school was renamed Gallaudet College in honor of Thomas Gallaudet's contributions to education. Today it is Gallaudet University, one of the world's leading institutions for educating deaf and hard-of-hearing undergraduates.

See also the Gallaudet University website:

About Andover Newton’s History

Since 1807, the Andover Newton community has crossed borders, climbed over barriers, and made connections. The nation’s oldest theological school and its first graduate institution, Andover Newton’s many innovations created the model used by almost all American theological schools today. Few schools of any kind have had as profound and lasting an impact on American life--- in religious and public service, in government, on public and higher education, in literature, linguistics, scholarship, social justice, equality, freedom, and the development of America’s core ideals and values. Its alumni and alumnae have included the founders of schools and colleges around the world, many nationally distinguished preachers, clergymen, and scholars of theology, three presidents of Brown University, the 9th president of Dartmouth College, and the author of the national hymn, “America.”

For more about Andover Newton's history, please click here.