Alexander G. Bell and Edward M. Gallaudet


Did you know that Alexander Graham Bell was a teacher of the deaf school in Boston? He was fluent in American Sign Language. His philosophy for the Deaf was advocating oralism.

Did you know that American Sign Language (ASL) almost went extinct? Edward Miner Gallaudet was actually a hero by preserving the language on campus.

Now, what does this have to do with Bell and Gallaudet, and how are they connected? First, I need to give you their backgrounds which led to their first meet and years of rivalry.


Before he became a teacher, he learned in the vocal elocution and speech techniques from his father and grandfather. Since his mother was deaf, he knew British Manuel alphabet and home signs to communicate with his mother. His fluency in sign language has improved greatly during his teaching career and still used it in his remaining years.

In changing careers, Bell established a private practice of teaching speech to the Deaf. With the speech training skills he learned from his father and grandfather, he used them on the Deaf students. It was to helped them to fully integrate in the hearing world. One student, George Sanders has a wealthy father, who later supported his telephone invention. Mabel Hubbard was the other student, who became deaf at age five, already acquired speech. She later became his wife. She knew some signs, but she refused to use it in public. Yet, in the later years, as a sponsor of some deaf-related organizations, she used sign language to communicate with the deaf members.

In his goal of teaching speech to many deaf people as possible, Bell tested his theory by giving the public demonstrations using his successful students. It was the day the Oralism Movement was born and has changed the Deaf world. It also affected the deaf education.


Gallaudet College has its beginning, starting with the land gifted by philanthropist and former US Postmaster General Amos Kendall. Mr. Kendall was the guardian of the 5 Deaf children. With the connections, Mr. Kendall convinced the Congress to pass the bill for the world’s one and only college for the Deaf. The charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Upon opening, the first president was Edward Miner Gallaudet. Only 20 years old, he was first hired as a principal of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind. Concerned by his age, the board of trustees agreed to have his Deaf mother, Sophia Fowler Gallaudet to go with him as the first Matron (of the men’s dormitory).

Since birth, Gallaudet was fluent in the sign language. His mother was Deaf and was one of the first students at the first Deaf school. His father, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, an educator of the Deaf and interpreter.

Not only he was the youngest college president in history, Gallaudet was also the longest serving president, tenured for 53 years. Gallaudet was the only president, who was fluent in ASL. It took more than 124 years before the next successor, the first Deaf president, I. King Jordan, who was fluent in ASL. It has established the precedent that all the presidents after I. King Jordan to be Deaf and fluent in ASL.

The Beginning of the Rivalry

Nobody knows for sure exactly when or how Gallaudet and Bell first met. Gallaudet was a president of the college for less than ten years when Bell became famous for the telephone invention. Bell already has his lifelong advocacy for oralism for years. Although, both men were CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults) with cultural experience and skill in sign language of the Deaf, they grew up completely different.

Both men were educators and fierce advocates for the Deaf. While they strived for the betterment of the lives of the Deaf, their philosophies were very different. They had been on debates against one another for more than 40 years. They even corresponded, trying to convince one another that their method was superior.

Oralism vs Sign Language

In 1880, President Gallaudet attended the Milan Conference and tried to convince the members to support the sign language. But, Bell, also attended, advocated the oralism concept by demonstrating his best students. It blew away everyone’s minds and the vote was to ban sign language in all schools for the deaf.

Upon returning to America, Edward was determined to save the sign language from extinction. As a staunch supporter, Gallaudet encouraged the language to flourish on campus. The students were able to communicate without barriers, to learn and to facilitate in the other aspects of the student life as well. At the same time, ASL continued to survive in the undergrounds clubs. Over the next decades, while the Oralism Movement was growing, ASL was declining everywhere in America.

Foes or Friends?

Alexander G. Bell and Edward M. Gallaudet were actually frenemies than mere foes or friends. Over the years, Bell and Gallaudet had the opportunities to reconcile their philosophies and methods. In reluctance, they respected each other’s view, but, neither wanted to budge nor open to it. Hence, the Great Debate (manual vs oralism) continued to this day.

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