Who was Laurent Clerc

Laurent Clerc in 1822

Laurent Clerc (Louis, Laurent, Marie Clerc) was born December 26, 1785 in La Balme-les-Grottes, a small village at the east of Lyon in the department of Isère (France). The name of this town is relative to the celebre prehistoric caves existing in the hills of the vicinities. The father of Laurent, Joseph François Clerc (1747 - 1816) was notary. He was also the mayor of the village from 1780 to 1814. The mother of Laurent, Marie Françoise Candy died in 1825.


A fabulous destiny

When he was baby, Laurent became profoundly deaf toward the age of one year after having fallen, one says, in the fireplace of the house of his parents. This accident made him also lose the smell. However, maybe he was born with these handicaps. But this accident caused him a scar to the right cheek. For this reason, the name of Laurent Clerc is expressed in the Sign Language by two fingers skimming the right cheek.

We are unaware to say what Laurent Clerc can do when he was a young boy but we can imagine that he let to himself, nobody in his setting being able to apprehend her deafness. They can also suppose that his childhood was calm enough due to the isolation of the town where he lived. And also because of his father's notoriety; he was royal notary.

Paris: Statue of De l'Epee in Saint Jacques School The child Laurent Clerc remained therefore in the house of her parents and worked according to her possibilities and on the model of her setting, to the domestic occupations and other farmers task. Nothing existing in the region for the deaf children, he didn't receive any instruction. In 1797, whereas Laurent Clerc went on her twelfth year old, always not knowing read and nor write, one of her uncles, that was also his godfather, register him to the Royal Institution of the Deaf of Paris that the famous abbot Charles-Michel de l’Epée (1712-1789) had founded some years ago, in 1760. We are unaware how the knowledge of this Institution arrived until the Clerc’s family but it is known that this school, that was the first in the world for the deaf children, had a great reverberation. Even the french king Louis XVI had mingled himself of it. The regulation of the institution, build on the site called "Sainte Geneviève mountain", had been written by the Home Office

When Laurent Clerc arrived in Paris, the establishment was directed by the abbot Roch-Ambroise Sicard (academician 1742-1822) that had taken the succession of the abbot De l’Epée. But, when he enters in the institution, Laurent Clerc didn't meet Sicard. The abbot hid himself due to her sympathies towards the set down monarchy. It was afraid by the deportation asked by the Directoire. Laurent Clerc was received by Jean Massieu, a young deaf man who was 25 years old, who had been named first associate teacher of Sicard by the king Louis XVI.

Registers of the institution indicate that Clerc arrived the 1st Fructidor of the year 6 (18 August 1798). Clerc was going to her 13 years old at the end of the year. He had to remain to the institution until 1816, either during 18 years. Laurent Clerc, gifted of a big intelligence, made rapids progress notably thanks to Jean Massieu. The two men became faithful friends and remained it all their life. Clerc also worked to the printing workshop of the institution. In 1806 he became there teacher.

The american way

In March 1815 Clerc went on her 30 years old, he was still unmarried. He continued to work to the institution. At the same time, Sicard, still responsible of the Institution of the Deaf of Paris, invited Massieu and Clerc to London where they made numerous demonstrations of their educational methods. An American pastor, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, came from Hartford (Connecticut) attended to one among them. He was traveling in Europa to find a method of education for the deaf children of America because nothing existed over there for them. Gallaudet was invited in Paris by Sicard.

In Paris, after Sicards and her companions had back from London, Thomas Gallaudet came to visit the Royal Institution of the Deaf therefore. He became friends with Clerc who welcomed him gladly in his class and explained him his method. So that one day, Gallaudet, for that it was time to go in to the United States, invited Clerc to follow it and to help him to found a school for deaf children. Laurent Clerc, after a deep reflection and many hesitations, accepted. In Le Havre, a french harbour, the two men embarked June 18, 1816 on a sailboat callad " Mary Augusta ". Due to bad winds and many quiet wheater, the crossing lasted 52 days to the term of which the ship accosted in New-York August 9. During the trip, Clerc taught the Language of Signs to Gallaudet while Gallaudet helped Clerc to perfect his English.

In Hartford, Connecticut, final goal of the journey, the first school for deaf children, the American Asylum of Hartford for Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb, was founded finally and inaugurated April 15, 1817 after a lot of difficulties. This school always exists, nowadays, after having several evolutions.

(Photo: ASD Hartford)

The memory

By her devotion and his tireless action close to the deaf American in order to make them fully citizens, Clerc let a very vivacious memory in the United States; his memory is always very honored and respected. He is named "Apostle of the Deaf people of the New World".

Laurent Clerc died June 16, 1869, in Hartford (Connecticut) when he was 83 years old, practically 53 years after he boarding in Le Havre. He passed the major part of his life in the United States. Three years after her arrival in America, he married Elisabeth Boardman, a deaf girl who was also her pupil. It was too the first marriage of deaf in the United States! They had six children, all hearing. Only four arrived to the adult age. One of them became pastor. Thomas Gallaudet married also a young deaf woman, Sophia Fowler, that had been pupil of Clerc!

Laurent Clerc is buried, as well as his wife, to the Spring Grove cemetery in Hartford. They spent 50 years together. Their headstones, a time let neglected has been finally restored lately.


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