Facial Hair Friday: Edward Miner Gallaudet

Today’s Facial Hair Friday looks at the first president of what would become Gallaudet University in Washington DC: Edward Miner Gallaudet. It features photographs from the Mathew Brady collection at the National Archives.

Edward Miner Gallaudet was born on February 5, 1837, in Hartford, Connecticut. He was the youngest of eight children. His father, Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787–1851), was co-founder and the first principal of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, and later Gallaudet University was named in his honor. His mother, Sophia Fowler (1798–1877), a former student of Reverend Gallaudet, was deaf and played an important role in both the American School but also in the early years of Gallaudet University.

After Edward Gallaudet graduated high school, he worked for a few years in a bank before becoming a teacher at the American School. While teaching, he earned a B.S. from Trinity College in Hartford. 

In 1856 Amos Kendall, a wealthy businessman and former Postmaster General (who sported some nice sideburns), offered Gallaudet a position as superintendent of a new school in Washington, DC, for deaf and blind students. At the ripe old age of 20, Gallaudet, along with his mother, moved to Washington, DC, to run the new school, the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind.

In 1857 Congress incorporated the Columbia Institution, and after its first year it had 17 students—11 who were deaf and six who were blind. At the urging of Gallaudet, in 1864 Congress passed an act establishing the Columbia Institution as a national college with the ability to confer degrees. President Abraham Lincoln signed the legislation on April 8, 1964, and Gallaudet served as the first president. After its blind students were transferred to the Maryland Institution for the Blind, the school was exclusively for educating deaf and hard of hearing students. 

Gallaudet served as the Columbia Institution’s president until his retirement in 1910. During that time he was a tireless advocate for the institution and its students. He was able to secure funds to support tuition assistance, campus operations, and the construction of new buildings. Gallaudet also wrote extensively on deaf education and was a proponent of sign language to help deaf students communicate. 

During Gallaudet’s tenure, the Columbia Institution for the Deaf consisted of a college and primary school. In 1885, the primary school became the Kendall School in honor of Amos Kendall, and in 1894 the college became known as Gallaudet College, in honor of Edward Gallaudet’s father (although it took 60 years for Congress to amend the charter to officially rename the college).

When Gallaudet announced his retirement, the board of directors reluctantly accepted it since he had been with the institution since the beginning—over a half-century. One of the board members, John B. Wight, summed up Gallaudet’s contributions nicely:

Dr. Gallaudet has always had a threefold problem—the educational, which he ever sought to perfect, enlarge, and advance; the financial, which took of his life’s own blood to handle, meeting in congressional committees repulses and insults from those who were afterwards glad to receive benefits from his splendid work for those of their own families or their constituents who needed the college help and could get it nowhere else; and the social life of this beautiful place, with its homes for professors and teachers, with their families, as well as the institution life of those who taught. I think this last part of the work was not the least difficult, and has been the least appreciated; it was the part of the voyage in which the rocks were not in sight, but they were there and ready to make shipwreck of the craft. With skill and forbearance and self-sacrifice on his part all harm was safely averted.

After Gallaudet retired, he moved back to Hartford, where he lived until his death in 1917. In 1986 Congress gave the school its current name: Gallaudet University. To this day, Gallaudet University remains the world’s only liberal arts university for deaf and hard of hearing students.

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