Laurent Clerc
(1785 - 1869)

First Deaf Teacher

Laurent Clerc was America's first deaf teacher. Thomas Gallaudet and he helped found America's first school for the deaf, American School for the Deaf (ASD), in Hartford, Connecticut.

Last Update: March 17, 2013
Laurent Clerc (1785-1869) is known for his pioneering work in deaf education. Born and raised in France, he was a teacher at a now-famous Deaf school in Paris. Thomas Gallaudet from America came to France to learn about teaching methods for deaf students. In Paris, Gallaudet asked Clerc to come to America to help found deaf education in America. Sign language was employed in teaching methods.

Clerc was born in La Balme-les-Grottes, France, in 1785. The legend says that he fell from his high chair into the fireplace, in which his right cheek was severely burned. He then became deaf and his sense of smell was lost. His name sign is derived from this scar.

Clerc was sent to the Institut National des Jeune Sourds-Muets in 1797. His first teacher was Jean Massieu who was also deaf. Massieu later became his lifelong friend. Clerc excelled in his studies and later became a teacher at that school in 1806. The director of the school Abbe Sicard, Clerc, and Massieu went to England to demonstrate their teaching methods in England in 1815, when they met Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet who sailed from Hartford, Connecticut, U.S. They invited Gallaudet to travel to France to learn about the teaching methods. Gallaudet convinced Clerc to come to America with him to help found the first school for the deaf in Hartford. Despite this much difficult decision, Clerc agreed to come only for three years and then would plan to return to France.

Clerc and Gallaudet left France in 1816 on a ship to America. On the 52-days voyage, Clerc taught Gallaudet sign language and Gallaudet taught Clerc further English. They worked together to raise funds and founded the first school for the deaf (now known as the American School for the Deaf) in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. Clerc was the head teacher and Gallaudet was the principal of this institution. Not only Clerc taught students, he also trained future teachers and administrators. His language, Old French Sign Language, was intermingled with the previous native or local sign language and some other regional signs. The American Sign Language (ASL) then had been evolved. His works eventually had great influences across the states, where more than 30 schools for the deaf were established around the nation in his lifetime.

Clerc planned to come back to France but decided to stay in America with his wife. He married Eliza Boardman, one of his students, in 1819. Their eldest child, Elizabeth, later taught at ASD.

Clerc retired from teaching in 1858 at age 73 after 50 years of service. He died at age 84, on July 18, 1869 in Hartford. His grave is in Spring Grove Cemetery, Hartford, near his wife Eliza and the poetess Lydia Sigourney.

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