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The Role of Scientific Societies

The interest expressed by American scholars, most notably members of scientific societies, in the education of deaf children was significant in laying the foundation on which Gallaudet and Clerc built formal education for deaf children in the United States. In Europe, members of the French Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London had a longstanding interest in the education of deaf children. John Wallis, Robert Boyle, William Holder, Kenelm Digby, Georges Buffon, Charles Marie de La Condamine, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were a few of the scientists and philosophers who explored the potential of deaf children to learn.61

Occasionally, deaf scientists distinguished themselves in their associations with these early societies. For example, John Goodricke, who had been a pupil at the Braidwood Academy in the 1770s, received the Copley Medal from the Royal Society for his work in astronomy. He was elected a fellow in 1786. Charles Bonnet, who was tutored privately in the 1740s in Switzerland, became one of the first scientists to study parthenogenesis. He, too, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London and was a corresponding member of the French Academy of Sciences. Saboureux de Fontenay, deaf since birth, published a memoir on meteorology, and Guillaume Amontons, deaf since his youth, followed in Kepler’s footsteps in the study of barometric pressure and laid the foundation for Fahrenheit’s work with the thermometric scale. An active member of the French Academy of Sciences, Amontons was one of the first profoundly deaf persons in history to author a book, Observations and Physical Experiences on the Construction of a New Clepsydra, on Barometers, Thermometers and Hygrometers, which was published in 1695.

Before the turn of the century, there were numerous interactions between American scholars and their counterparts in Europe in relation to the issue of educating deaf children. In 1781, Richard Bagley, the Health Officer of the Port of New York, carried a letter to Samuel Mitchill, the New York surgeon general, from Francis Green, who had been visiting the Braidwood Academy every day for six weeks.

“During this time I had the ineffable pleasure of marking the daily progress of improvement in my boy, and in the other pupils. . . . By the means of this interesting art . . . a certain portion of the human species is rescued from uselessness, ignorance and lamentable inferiority and rendered capable of every useful accomplishment, every degree of erudition, and pleasure of social conversation and enjoyment.”62
Two years later, Francis Green published Vox Oculis Subjecta (“Voice Made Subject to the Eyes”), a work that received complimentary recognition in the Boston Magazine in 1784 and 1785. Despite the death by drowning of his deaf son Charles in 1787, Green frequently visited the school for the deaf in Paris. He also helped to establish a school for deaf children in London in 1792. At the turn of the century, living in Medford, Massachusetts, he published numerous translations of the writings of Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Epée, the founder of the Paris school, under the nom de plume “Philosophus.” These writings appeared in columns of the New England Palladium. Green’s dedicated efforts laid the foundation for subsequent work by Samuel Mitchill and others in establishing a school in New York. Many years later, Alexander Graham Bell wrote that Francis Green “was the first to collate the literature of this art; the earliest American writer upon the subject; the first to urge the education of the deaf in this country; the pioneer-promoter of free schools for the deaf— both in England and America; the first parent of a deaf child to plead for the education of all deaf children.”63

Benjamin Franklin and John Quincy Adams were among the Americans who were aware of the pioneering educators in Europe during the eighteenth century. According to Francis Green, Franklin was an observer of the “celebrated Mr. Braidwood of Edinburgh.”64 In 1784, Adams sent a letter to William Cranch of Cambridge, Massachusetts, describing “one of the greatest curiosities that Paris affords,—the school of Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Epée.”65 Adams explained that Epée taught deaf pupils “not only to converse with each other by signs, but to read and write, and comprehend the most abstracted metaphysical ideas.”66

In 1793, The American Philosophical Society published in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society William Thornton’s treatise on elements of teaching speech and language to deaf children in the United States. His essay, which earned him a Magellenic Gold Medal, was titled “On the Mode of Teaching the Deaf, or Surd, and consequently Dumb, to speak.”67 Thornton was an inventor and architect as well as director of the patent office. He was involved in many social causes, and he had probably observed the work of the followers of the Braidwoods and l’Epée during his own studies in Edinburgh and Paris. His perceptions on deaf education were provocative, covering topics such as the phonological basis for reading; the importance of vocabulary building; and methods of communicating with deaf people, including speech, fingerspelling, and signs. On this last topic, Thornton wrote that “a deaf person not perfectly skilled in reading words from the lips, or who should ask anything in the dark would be able to procure common information by putting various questions, and by telling the person that, as he is deaf, he requests answers by signs, which he will direct him to change according to circumstances.” 68

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