Cogswell Alice & Mason Fitch
Alice Cogswell (1805–1830), 2nd cousin 6x removed
Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell (1761–1830), 1st cousin 7x removed
Alice Cogswell was the inspiration to Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet for the creation of the what is now known as the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. At the age of two, she became ill with “spotted fever” (cerebra-spinal meningitis). This illness took her hearing and later she lost her speech as well. At the time, deafness was viewed as equivalent to a mental illness, and it was believed that the deaf could not be taught. Gallaudet moved into the house next door to hers when she was nine years old. He soon noticed that she wasn’t interacting with the other children, and when he asked why, he was informed that she was deaf. Intrigued, he decided to teach her to communicate through pictures and writing letters in the dirt. He and Alice’s father, Dr. Mason Cogswell, decided that a formal school would be best for her, but no such school existed in the United States. Gallaudet went to Europe for 15 months, bringing Laurent Clerc back with him upon his return. During the time of his absence, Alice attended a hearing school and somewhat furthered her education, though the situation was not ideal. She was very lively, and enjoyed reading, sewing, and dancing. She was reportedly very good at mimicking others, and was fascinated by the concept of music.
Alice Cogswell and six other deaf students entered the school that would become the American School for the Deaf in April 1817. She died at the age of twenty-five on 30 Dec 1830, about two weeks after the death of her father. On the campus of the present American School for the Deaf at Hartford stands a statue of Gallaudet and Cogswell. Another statue of Gallaudet and Cogswell stands in front of Gallaudet University campus as Gallaudet sit on chair and Alice stood next to him to share their communication of “A” in fingerspelling. The Alice Cogswell statue (American School for the Deaf Founders Memorial), by Frances Laughlin Wadsworth, also represents her as a young girl.
Alice Cogswell is known today as a remarkable figure in the history of deaf culture, representing an extraordinary breakthrough in deaf education. She proved to the world that not only are the deaf capable of being taught, they are also capable of the same level of intelligence that the hearing are. Alice stands as a perfect example of I. King Jordan’s famous quote, “Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do, except hear.”
Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell was a well known and successful doctor in Hartford, Connecticut. He was born in Canterbury, Connecticut, the third son of Rev. James Cogswell and Alice Fitch. Mason Cogswell’s mother died when he was 11 years old, and his father relocated to New Scotland Parish in Windham, Connecticut and soon remarried. Mason remained behind and was looked after by the Honorable Samuel Huntington (my 2nd cousin 7x removed). He graduated from Yale College as the valedictorian of the class of 1780. Thereafter he studied medicine under his brother Dr. James Cogswell, first in Stamford, Connecticut, as Examining Surgeon of Volunteers in the Revolutionary War, and later in New York City. In 1789, Cogswell established his practice in Hartford. He was active in the social life of the city and was intimate with the “Hartford Wits,” a coterie of leading intellectual and literary figures. In 1812 Cogswell played an important role in the founding of the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (originally named the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons). He was motivated, no doubt, by the needs of his own daughter, Alice, who was rendered deaf and mute from an illness she suffered at age two. With Mr. Gilbert, an attorney from Hebron, Connecticut, Cogswell ascertained the number of deaf mutes in the state and petitioned the State Legislature for funds for a school. Several years later, funds had been secured to send Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet to study at the Paris school of Abbe Sicord with the intent of opening an institute in Hartford. In 1816 he returned, along with Laurent Clerc, one of Abbe Sicord’s most respected physicians. The school opened in 1817, with Alice Cogswell registered as its first pupil. The school was a success, and many young physicians came to Hartford to learn from Dr. Cogswell. Mason Cogswell was instrumental in establishing the State Medical Society and served as its Secretary, Vice-President, and President. He was also the first presiding officer of the Hopkins Medical Society, precursor of the Hartford Medical Society, organized in 1846. Cogswell was awarded the honorary degree of MD by the Connecticut Medical Society in 1810, and by Yale College in 1818. He was an innovative surgeon, working mainly in surgical ophthalmology. He was amongst the first in the United States to operate on cataracts. Additionally, in November 1803 he was the first American surgeon to ligate the carotid artery. Cogswell was married to Mary Austin Ledyard, only daughter of Colonel Austin Ledyard and Sarah (Sheldon) Ledyard, of Hartford. They had four daughters and one son. Mason Fitch Cogswell died of pneumonia on December 17, 1830.