Who was Laurent Clerc ?

              Laurent Clerc

      Former House of Clerc family

                        Old wash house

    Cave entrance

Brief Timeline of Laurent Clerc


♦ 1785

December 26, birth of Louis Laurent Marie Clerc in La Balme-les-Grottes, a small village in the north of the department of Isère, toward the south of France. His mother, Marie-Elisabeth Candy, was born into the bourgeoisie of Crémieux. His father, Joseph Clerc, was a royal notary.  At the request of his godfather, also named Laurent, only the child’s second name would be used.

It is only in 1901 that the town took its current name of La Balme-les-Grottes.  The term balme came from an old French word meaning “cave.”


♦ 1786

At about one year old, Laurent fell down in his parents’ home fireplace, and the resulted scar on his right cheek would be visible all his life. The family used this accident to explain his deafness, though it is more likely that Laurent was actually born deaf.


♦ 1788

A disastrous year in France. In August, France declared financial bankruptcy. The Estates General, the legislative assembly representing the three French orders (clergy, nobility, and third-state) were convened in 1789. The winter of 1788-89 is particularly cold. The harvests were very bad and the people were hungry. 


♦ 1789

The Revolution breaks out in France, symbolized by the storming of the Bastille on July 14. It is the end of the Old Regime. The king is deposed. Joseph Clerc is ruined.  His son Laurent stays in the village and received no any education at all.

December 23, death of the Abbé de l’Épée. His funeral took place the next day in the Saint-Roch church where he officiated.

The Abbé Roch-Ambroise Sicard became his successor as head of the school for deaf-mutes.


♦ 1790

A former pupil of the Abbé de l’Épée, named Cyrille Michel, passes through La Balme. Hoping to be a tutor, he stopped at the Clerc’s. Their fortune gone, the family can’t afford to pay him, and he leaves for Moûtiers, a small city in the Alpes in the hope of creating a school for deaf children.

A doctor from the city of Lyon tried to “cure” Clerc of his deafness by injecting liquids into his ears.  Clerc would later write that he suffered mightily from the “treatment” and that the attempt was abandoned.


♦ 1792

August 26: Sicard was arrested by the revolutionaries. The students of his school mobilized on his behalf and succeeded in getting him released, enabling him to escape the tragic and bloody September massacres.


♦ 1793

January 21: King Louis XVI was guillotined. October 16: Queen Marie Antoinette was also guillotined. The city of Lyon wais bombed.

Beginning of the French revolutionary calendar, with the year beginning on September 22 and no longer on January 1. This calendar would eventually be abandoned in 1806.

Laurent Clerc expressed himself through family-created “home signs.”


♦ 1794

The “Institution Nationale des Jeunes Sourds de Paris” was installed in the old seminary building called Saint-Magloire on the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris. Prospective students had to be at least nine years old, rules stipulated.


♦ 1797

March: Laurent Clerc’s probable arrival at the Institution for the Deaf in Paris. His uncle and godfather, also named Laurent, brought him and left little Laurent at the school, believing that admission was free. He eventually paid his tuition later.


♦ 1799

August 14: After many letters sent by his godfather to the authorities, a scholarship was finally awarded to Laurent, in view of documents justifying the poverty of his parents.

Clerc met Jean Massieu at the school and the two boys became friends.  Clerc met René Dunan, born in 1793, from Nantes, a large city not far from the sea in the southwest of France. René Dunan created a deaf school in his parent’s home in 1824. 

November 9: coup d’état of 18 Brumaire year VIII at the instigation of Napoléon Bonaparte. It was the end of the Directory. The Consulate was installed.

Sicard finally allowed to return to the institution of the deaf in Paris.

Over the next few years, Laurent began to study Catechism and attended the school’s printing workshop.


♦ 1805

Clerc’s communion occurs on August 18 and his confirmation two days later. Both ceremonies took place in the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris. They mark the end of Clerc’s schooling, and he leaves for vacation with his family in La Balme. At the end of summer, when the new school year began, he started work as a “repeater” (teacher assistant) in his friend Massieu’s classroom, with a salary of 500 francs (Massieu’s salary was 1,200 francs).


♦ 1807

June 24: Abbé Sicard sent a letter to the Ministry of the Interior requesting that Clerc be officially named a repeater (teacher assistant). In his letter he specified “that it would be impossible to find a repeater of equal merit to Laurent Clerc”. 

Clerc’s promotion happened at the same time as that of Laurine Duler, a young hearing woman, who became, three years later, principal of the school for deaf-mutes in Auray (department of Morbihan in little Brittany) and then, in 1817, of the deaf school in Arras (department of Pas-de-Calais, north of France).


♦ 1808

Massieu’s “Nomenclature”, an English-French dictionary, was printed at the Institution under the direction of Ange Clo, head of the printing workshop. According to Sicard, Massieu had found similarities in English and sign languages: for example, “English gives neither gender nor number to adjectives and places them before nouns”, he wrote.


♦ 1811

Clerc was assigned for several months to the school for deaf children in Nogent-le-Rotrou, a town in the south-west of Paris. This school still exists. 

Birth of the son of Napoléon Bonaparte and Marie-Louise of Austria.  He received the title of King of Rome.


♦ 1815 

Sicard, who feared Napoleon, fled to England. He took Massieu and Clerc with him. They gave demonstrations of teaching the deaf and met the American Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. They separate during the summer, Sicard and his students returned to France.


♦ 1816

In March, Thomas H. Gallaudet arrived in Paris and took up residence as an observer at the Institution of deaf-mutes of Paris. In June, Clerc accompanied him on his return ship to America. The crossing took 52 days. Clerc kept a journal relating his journey.


♦ 1817

Gallaudet and Clerc’s American school opened in April with three deaf students: Alice Cogswell, George Loring, and Wilson Whiton. A week later there were seven children. At the end of the year, Clerc met James Monroe, the president of the United States. 


♦ 1818

Laurent Clerc was the first Deaf person to address Congress in Deaf history in January 1818. The U.S. Congress passed the bill and granted to American School for the Deaf 23,000 acres of land in Alabama. These lands was sold for $300,000.


♦ 1819

Laurent Clerc married Elizabeth Crocker Boardman, one of his school’s students.

He was 33 years old. Eliza was 28 years old (see picture on right). 


♦ 1820

Birth of Elizabeth, first child of Eliza and Laurent Clerc.

Clerc made his first trip back to France where he stayed for a few months. He visited his Alma mater, the Paris Deaf school and did a stay at the the Hotel d'Orléans which was rue des Petits Augustins. Today, this street does not longer exist. 


♦ 1821

The school moves to a custom-built building.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet married Sophia Fowler, a deaf former student.

In the fall, Clerc was assigned to Philadelphia, PA, where he restructured the city’s school for deaf-mute children which was founded by David Seixas.


♦ 1822

Birth of Helen, second child of Eliza and Laurent.  


♦ 1823

Birth of Francis, third child and first son of Eliza and Laurent.  


♦ 1826

Birth of Charles, fourth child of Eliza and Laurent.  


♦ 1828

Birth of the twins Sarah and John. John died in 1831 at the age of two and half. 


♦ 1830

Thomas Gallaudet resigns. Lewis Weld became Principal of the American School for the Deaf. 

Dramatic death, at the age of 30, of Alice Cosgswell, who was Clerc's first pupil.


♦ 1835

Second trip of Clerc in France. He visited Lille where Jean Massieu was principal of the deaf school there. He also went in Belgium.


♦ 1846

Third time Clerc returns to France. He stayed about one year in his country. At the Paris deaf school, Clerc met Ferdinand Berthier, nicknamed "the Napoleon of the deafs" . 


♦ 1851

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet passed away.


♦ 1853

Lewis Weld died. William W. Turner became the new Principal. 


♦ 1856

Amos Kendall, a rich philanthropist, established the Washington, DC, School for Deaf and Dumb Children. Edward Miner, the youngest son of Thomas Gallaudet, became the principal.


♦ 1858

Clerc retirement at almost 73 years old. He teached during 51 years. 


♦ 1863

William Turner passed away. The Principal is the Reverend Collins Stone. 


♦ 1864

The Washington School was divided into two sections creating a high School section which was called Gallaudet College. It became an university in 1986 under President Ronald Reagan.


♦ 1869

Death of Laurent Clerc in Hartford. He was buried in the Spring Grove cemetery in Hartford. 


Timeline by R. Legal, author of the first full biography of Laurent Clerc

Do not reproduce without authorization. 


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Clic on the picture at left and visit the librairy of the Musée d'Histoire et de Culture des Sourds