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Figures in Deaf History: the Story of Thomas Gallaudet & Alice Cogswell

Thomas Gallaudet was an American educator and philanthropist born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1817, Gallaudet—along with a Deaf colleague named Laurent Clerc—founded the first school for the Deaf in the United States, which we’ll discuss in another article. Here, we’ll look at where Gallaudet’s story started—and how his unlikely encounter with a young girl set him on his path.

Much like Charles-Michel de l'Épée, another figure in Deaf history, Gallaudet was a student of theology and felt called to Christian ministry. After completing his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Yale, Gallaudet worked as a traveling salesman—although he suspected this wasn’t his true calling. While he worked as a traveling salesman in Kentucky and Ohio, Gallaudet taught poor rural children history, geography, and the Bible.

While visiting family in Hartford, Connecticut, Gallaudet noticed children playing outside—and one young girl whom the other kids excluded. When he went out to investigate, he learned that the other children considered this girl “dumb.” In fact, she was deaf.

The girl’s name was Alice Cogswell, and she was nine years old. Gallaudet sat with Alice and began scratching letters into the ground outside. He successfully taught her the words H-A-T and her name, A-L-I-C-E.

When Alice’s father, Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell heard about Gallaudet’s instruction, he was overjoyed. There were no schools for the Deaf at that time in the US, and Gallaudet didn’t even know sign language. But Dr. Cogswell could see that Gallaudet was a talented teacher.

Naturally, Dr. Cogswell generously financed a trip to Europe for Gallaudet to learn more about Deaf education. What happened on that trip would ultimately lead Gallaudet to establish the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. And, of course, Alice would be one of the first deaf students to attend the school!

Stay tuned for our next article about the American School for the Deaf!

“The Legacy Begins - History | Gallaudet University.” 2022. Gallaudet University. August 24, 2022.

“Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet | Deaf Education, Sign Language & Co-Founder.” Encyclopedia Britannica. September 6, 2023.

“Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet Meets Alice Cogswell - History | Gallaudet University.” 2022. Gallaudet University. August 24, 2022.

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