Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Diverse Communities
Human Rights
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851) was a trained minister whose future changed when he met Alice Cogswell, a young deaf mute girl. In 1817, Gallaudet opened the "Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons" in Hartford, Connecticut; it was the first U.S. deaf school. (Note: At that time, dumb meant "inability to speak.") He had observed European educational methods and recruited a teacher of the deaf, Laurent Clerc, whose work helped develop American Sign Language (ASL).

Biographical Highlights

At a young age, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851), a Yale-educated American, became aware of the lack of educational opportunities for disadvantaged children. While a traveling salesman in Kentucky and Ohio, he taught poor rural children history, geography and the Bible. This experience led him to seek theological training and, as a minister, he returned to traveling from town to town.

Gallaudet's future changed when he met Alice Cogswell, a young deaf mute girl. He became determined to help her and, upon the request of her father, went to Europe to learn educational methods for teaching the deaf. Dr. Mason Cogswell and others had offered Gallaudet the opportunity to open and become principal of the first deaf school in the United States. Upon his return, in 1817, the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons opened in Hartford. Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, a European teacher he had recruited, began teaching students. The school's success brought the attention of President James Monroe, and subsequent government funding for large lands and a big facility for the growing institution.

Thomas Gallaudet's work was instrumental because it allowed society to understand that those who are deaf could be educated. His school was one of the country's early grass roots efforts that diversified education and brought it to the disadvantaged. Also, his work helped develop the American Sign Language, the most widely-used form of communication for the deaf community in the world.

Historic Roots

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was born in Philadelphia on December 10, 1787. The Gallaudet family moved to Hartford, Connecticut when Thomas was a young boy. At the age of fifteen, he left to be educated at Yale. He graduated in 1805, two months before his eighteenth birthday. Once graduated, Thomas worked as a law assistant and a tutor. Both of these jobs created health issues which did not allow him to remain in the positions. In fact, lung-related illness would continue with him.

After spending much time working in the city, Gallaudet welcomed the job of being a door-to-door salesman in the rural areas of Kentucky and Ohio. This is where he began his lifelong philanthropic endeavors. Many of the families that he visited did not have

enough money to purchase items for each child; often they were only able to afford one item. Gallaudet made it a point to give the children a little treasure that would brighten

their day. He noticed that many of the children were at the age where they should be in school and wondered why they were not in school. He was told that the big city teachers that came to these areas rarely stayed because they did not enjoy living in the country. After learning this, Gallaudet began to teach the children he met U.S. history, Bible verses and geography.

Gallaudet made the decision to enter a theological seminary in 1812. He became a licensed preacher two years later. Gallaudet was offered a position as a minister in an area where he would be the only minister. Due to his health problems, he decided to become a traveling preacher everywhere there was a need. This also gave him the opportunity to spend time at home with his family.

While visiting his family, he met the daughter of Dr. Mason Cogswell, Alice. She was deaf and mute as a result of losing her hearing at the age of two from spotted fever. Gallaudet took interest in the young girl who was trapped in her own world without a way to communicate. The girl and the minister began to form the relationship of teacher and student. He spent much of his time learning about the deaf and what he might be able to teach the little girl

Gallaudet had a great interest in finding a way to educate Alice. He learned of a school in Europe that was educating the deaf and hoped Alice would attend the school. Her family was concerned about sending her to another country at such a young age. Dr. Cogswell and others decided that there needed to be a school for the deaf in the United States. They chose Gallaudet to be the principal of the school and decided he needed to go to the schools in Europe and learn the methods for teaching the students.

Gallaudet arrived in France and began to learn the process of communicating with the deaf from Abbé Sicard, the author of many of the resources Gallaudet had used when teaching. During Gallaudet's stay, he formed a friendship with another of the Royal Institution's teachers, Laurent Clerc. After a year, Gallaudet decided to return home to the United States. He brought Clerc with him to be one of the teachers in the new school for the deaf.

In April of 1817, the first school for the deaf in the United States opened in Hartford, Connecticut. It was first called the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons; and, later, was renamed the American School for the Deaf.

The first class in the school had eight students. They quickly learned many of the signs that Gallaudet and Clerc taught them. For the first time in their lives, they were able to ommunicate with others. Other people quickly learned about the school and, by the end of the first winter, the enrollment grew to thirty students.

Gallaudet's school was a success. By the end of the first year, the president of the United States, James Monroe, had paid a visit to the school. This led to the

government granting a large piece of land and a three-story building for the growing school.

In August 1821, Gallaudet married one of his students, Sophia Fowler. The couple had a child. Sophia was concerned that the child would be deaf. She tested the baby and discovered that the child was able to hear. Over the years, she and Thomas parented a total of eight children.

Gallaudet continued to work for the school until 1831. Upon leaving the school, he took on two jobs as a minister, one for a local jail and the other at a retreat center for the insane. He was kept very busy with work and his large family. Even though he left the school for the deaf, he continued to advocate and educate others on the issue.

In September 1851, Gallaudet passed away from complications of the lung disease that he had suffered from since he was a child. His youngest son, Edward, had followed in his footsteps as an advocate for deaf education. Dedicated to starting the first college for the deaf, and with the support of President Abraham Lincoln, Edward turned Colombia Institution into a college for the deaf and became its first president. Graduates of the college, asked its governing board to change the institution's name to Gallaudet University in honor of Thomas Gallaudet's work to promote education for the deaf community.


During Gallaudet's life, the medical field did not understand what made individuals lose their hearing. Doctors had tried methods to correct hearing problems, including creating additional holes in the ears and pouring solutions into the ear to break the "block."

In addition to not knowing what caused hearing loss, no one had developed a broadly-used method of communication for the deaf. In the United States, there were no schools for deaf individuals. Only a few schools in Europe taught the deaf to communicate, they used two different methodslip-reading and signing.

Thomas Gallaudet played a major role in advocating for the education of the deaf in the United States. Without his involvement, this movement would have not evolved as quickly. His work was also instrumental in the creation of American Sign Language, now widely used throughout the United States and the world.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Thomas Gallaudet used the philanthropic sector to develop an educational system that aided in educating the deaf. By creating the first school for the deaf in the United States, he showed that those who could not hear were able to learn. This changed the viewpoint of many who thought this impossible. His work allowed the deaf to be treated equally as citizens of this community.

When the president of the United States came to visit Gallaudet's school, the funding for deaf education increased. This allowed students to be taught ASL (American Sign Language) and lip reading. Due to the opportunity for education that has evolved from Gallaudet's initial efforts, the deaf are able to exist as equals in society today. His love for education of the deaf has had a great effect on society.

Gallaudet passed his passion for equal rights for the deaf to his son, Edward. Not only did Gallaudet cultivate this passion in Edward, but he taught him an understanding that there was much work to be done to ensure the deaf would have a community of their own. Edward accomplished this by assisting in the development of deaf religious communities and also by succeeding his father as principal of the School of the Deaf.

Key Related Ideas

Deaf education -Gallaudet was the first to bring the concept of formal education for the deaf to the United States, after returning from Europe with research on the topic.

Deaf rights -Gallaudet worked to ensure the deaf received the same rights as other citizens in the United States, and used the formal education process as a vehicle to achieve this goal.

History of American Sign Language -Gallaudet brought the concept of ASL to the United States. He also brought the motions that are used as signs today.

History of Gallaudet University -Gallaudet played a major role in forming the school that would later be known as Gallaudet University and his son continued the goals of his father and the institution by serving as its principal.

Important People Related to the Topic

Laurent Clerc -Gallaudet meet Clerc during his trip to France to inquire about European methods of teaching the deaf. Clerc accompanied Gallaudet back to the United States and began teaching at the first deaf school when it opened with eight students.

Alice Cogswell -Cogswell was Gallaudet's student and the catalyst that inspired his passion for deaf education and rights. He became interested in her while visiting with her parents. The two formed a relationship and this sparked Gallaudet's interest in learning to teach the deaf. Alice's father funded Gallaudet's trip to Europe to allow him to research existing teaching methods. Alice was among the first students who attended Gallaudet's school for the deaf.

Edward Miner Gallaudet -Edward Gallaudet, Thomas' son, was the first president of the first college for the deaf, located in Washingon D.C., and later known as Gallaudet University. He followed in his father's footsteps by working with the deaf community. Edward also played a role in creating religious communities for the deaf in the United States.

Samuel Gridley Howe -Howe established the first school for the blind in the United States—Perkins School for the Blind in Boston—which is still in existence today. Howe's work took an innovative approach in early education for the blind and deaf.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Gallaudet University is located in Washington, D.C and was founded by Thomas Gallaudet. The university focuses on educating the deaf in the United States and beyond. The school has many majors from which undergraduates may select. Also, the university offers several graduate and doctoral programs, including education of the deaf and counseling. In 2001, the enrollment was just under 1,900 students. Approximately one-third of the university's employees are deaf or hard of hearing, including the institution's president.


  • Carroll, Cathryn. A Father, A Son, and a University: Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, 1787-1851 . Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Network at Gallaudet University.
  • De Gering, Etta. Gallaudet: Friend of the Deaf. New York: David Mc Kay Company, 1964.
  • Gallaudet, Edward Miner. Life of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet: Founder of Deaf-Mute Instruction in America. New York: Holt, 1888.
  • Gallaudet University. Home page. .
  • Moore, Matthew, and Linda Levitan. For Hearing People Only. Rochester, New York: Deaf Life Press, 1993. ISBN 0-9634016-1-0.
  • Russell Bowen, Andy. A World of Knowing: A Story about Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Minneapolis: Carolhoad Books, 1995. ISBN 0-87614-817-2.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.