Alexander Graham Bell taught signing as a young teacher of the deaf, and sometimes signed with students—including Helen Keller. He sometimes signed with his mother and later with his wife Mabel, who were both deaf.
Even Bell’s last words in August 1922 were signed to Mabel!
During Bell’s lifetime, signing was not the sophisticated and complete language that American Sign Language (ASL) is today. There were different methods of signing in the 1800s, and many people signed using time-consuming “fingerspelling” with an alphabet glove, spelling out words one letter at a time.
In Bell’s time, deaf persons who only communicated by signing were usually limited to conversing with others who also knew signing. However, Bell believed that Helen Keller’s extraordinary successes proved the value of deaf children interacting with hearing children, as well as with others who are hearing-impaired.
Throughout his lifetime, Bell worked to ensure that the deaf and those with hearing impairments were fully integrated into society. To achieve complete assimilation in society, Bell encouraged speech therapy and lip reading over signing as much as possible.
In an 1898 paper titled The Question of Sign-Language and The Utility of Signs in the Instruction of the Deaf, Bell wrote—
“I believe in the use of natural actions and natural gestures, as hearing people employ them, not in any other way. I believe it to be a mistake to employ gestures in place of words; and natural pantomime, or sign-language of any sort, should not, I think, be used as a means of communication. I do not object to manual alphabets of any kind in the earlier stages of instruction.”
“I prefer the pure oral method to any other, but I would rather have a deaf child taught through De l’Epee signs (an early form of sign language developed in France) than not educated at all.”
Bell also added—
“I do not approve of continuing the manual alphabet method throughout the whole school life of the pupil, but look upon it only as a means to an end.
The oral method should, I think, be used in the higher grades; and speech-reading be substituted for the manual alphabet after familiarity with the English language, and a good vocabulary, have been gained.
In my preference, oral methods come first; the manual alphabet method second; and the sign-language method last; but my heart is with the teachers of the deaf whatever their method may be.”
During his lifetime of work with the deaf, Bell had hoped that the methodology combining speech therapy and lip reading, which came to be known as the “Oral Method,” could be integrated significantly into the hearing world.
He believed this approach would prove superior to signing (Manual Method), which was widely used in the education of the deaf.
Despite his preference for the Oral Method, Bell was not dogmatic about this and emphasized focusing on whatever would best serve the interests of the individual student. This is corroborated in his writings, in which he recognized that not all people who are deaf could master the difficult challenge of lip reading, and therefore signing was sometimes a necessary option.
In his comprehensive 1973 biography of Bell, Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of history Robert V. Bruce noted that when Bell formed a national organization of teachers of the deaf in 1891, he “committed it to promoting speech teaching but declared its neutrality as to the several teaching methods – oral, manual, and combined.”
Based on his flexibility about the use of the different methods, Bell would very likely prefer the “combined” method in use today, making use of lip reading, speech therapy, and signing—all bolstered by technological advances.
At the turn of the 19th century, the science of genetics was riddled with inaccuracies that were later corrected. For example, at this time, most scientists believed that a trait such as deafness was hereditary and that the chances of a child born deaf were significantly greater if both of their parents were deaf.
Adding to the confusion was the greater occurrence of deafness back then due to the lack of antibiotics, which could have helped resolve conditions that lead to deafness.
Alexander Graham Bell did not espouse these misguided assertions, and did his best to set the record straight.
In an 1891 speech about heredity that Bell presented to a group of deaf students at what is now Gallaudet University in Washington, DC titled Marriage, An Address To The Deaf, Bell said:
“You yourselves are a part of a great world of hearing and speaking people. You are not a race distinct and apart, and you must fulfill the duties of life and make your way to honorable positions among the hearing and speaking people.
I know that an idea has gone forth, and is very generally believed in by the deaf in this country, that I want to prevent you from marrying as you choose, and that I have tried to pass a law to interfere with your marriages.
But, my friends, it is not true. I have never done such a thing, nor do I intend to; and, before I speak upon this subject, I want you distinctly to understand that I have no intention of interfering with your liberty of marriage. You can marry whom you choose, and I hope you will be happy.
It is not for me to blame you for marrying to suit yourselves, for you all know that I myself, the son of a deaf mother, have married a deaf wife.”
On the occasion of his death in 1922, the Journal of the National Education Association wrote—
“In 1884 Dr. Bell laid before the Chicago Board of Education the principle that every effort should be made in the training of deaf children to have them associate with the hearing children.
He furthermore suggested that a feasible plan would be to provide a separate room and special teachers for people who are deaf or hard of hearing children in the same building with hearing children. ‘Too visionary’ was the verdict in 1884; in 1916 the school was built and has since served as a model for the idea it embodies.”
Bell was indeed a progressive thinker and scientific visionary who sought to fully integrate deaf people into mainstream society. As the son and husband of a deaf person and a teacher of people who were deaf or hard of hearing, he worked tirelessly to support and empower all hearing-impaired individuals to live their lives free of societal prejudices and limitations and enjoy happiness and prosperity.
Today, Bell would be pleased to observe the much wider recognition of rights for people who are deaf and hard of hearing as evidenced by the fast-growing use of American Sign Language in public forums, and the growth of ASL, which is much more sophisticated now that it was in Bell’s time a century ago.
It’s likely Bell would be enormously pleased with today’s technology that enables people who are deaf or hard of hearing to actually hear spoken language. He would be a strong advocate for modern intervention methods, including newborn screening, early diagnosis, early access to modern hearing aids, and/or cochlear implants – all of which have dramatically improved outcomes for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Bell’s vision has been carried forward by the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Washington, D.C., which works globally to encourage people who are deaf and hard of hearing to listen and speak. The organization also provides professional support and teacher certification.
Bell was fascinated by a diverse range of scientific inquiry and developed an interest in the burgeoning science of genetics and heredity. This fascination stemmed from the work of Charles Darwin, whose groundbreaking research was published in 1859. Bell had an interest in the emerging science of heredity, and later genetics, as it applied to livestock.
To this end, in the 1890s, Bell commenced three decades of observing and recording experiments in sheep breeding on his estate in Canada. He hoped to develop sheep that were more likely to bear twins in order to make the flocks more productive for local shepherds.
While Bell expressed a profound interest in the science of genetics and heredity, he never was a proponent of human engineering. In fact, no document exists connecting Bell with compulsory or voluntary sterilization.
In November 1883, Bell presented a paper at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences titled Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race. In this paper, Bell notes that, “We cannot dictate to men and women whom they should marry and natural selection no longer influences mankind to any great extent.”
This scientific paper, one of only two on the subject of heredity that Bell wrote in his lifetime, offers Bell’s own research regarding people who are deaf or hard of hearing and their offspring. It makes no public policy or social engineering recommendations to reduce the frequency of deafness in society.
In 1991, Bell presented a talk on the subject of marriage at what is now Gallaudet University. He said—
“I know that the idea has gone forth, and is very generally believed in by the deaf of this country, that I want to prevent you from marrying as you choose, and that I have tried to pass a law to interfere with your marriages.
But, my friends, it is not true. I have never done such a thing, nor do I intend to… I want you to distinctly understand that I have no intention of interfering with your liberty of marriage. You can marry whom you choose, and I hope you will be happy.”
Bell goes on to note —
“the community has no right to interfere with the liberty of the individual and his pursuit of happiness in marriage unless the interests of the community are demonstrably endangered. The happiness of individuals is often promoted by marriage even in the cases where the offspring may not be desirable.”
In a 1908 article for National Geographic Magazine titled A Few Thoughts Concerning Eugenics, Bell endorses the idea that society should “Throw wide the gates of marriage, and where children are produced, close tight the doors of divorce.
Every child is entitled by nature to a father and a mother; and no people should produce children who are not prepared to give them parental care for life. Without going to extremes, I would say that the interest of the community demands that we should make marriage easy and divorce difficult.”
In the same presentation, Bell notes—
“The moment we propose to interfere with the liberty of marriage we tread upon dangerous ground. The institution of marriage not only provides for the production of offspring, but for the production of morality in the community at large. This is a powerful reason why we should not interfere with it any more than can possibly be helped.”
In pondering this question, he goes on to state—
“The problem is one of great difficulty and perplexity, for its solution depends upon the possibility of controlling the production of offspring from human beings. By no process of compulsion can this be done.
The controlling power, if it is possible, to evoke it in the interest of the race, resides exclusively with the individuals most immediately concerned. This fact, I think, should be recognized as fundamental, so that our processes should be persuasive rather than mandatory.”
Keep in mind that at the time Bell was writing there was very little understanding about genetics or heredity in the scientific community and the topic had yet to make its way into popular conversation. In fact, the word “genetics” did not exist until it was introduced in 1905 by English biologist William Bateson.
Bell’s role with a variety of eugenics-related activities was inconsequential at most and in no way reflects his support of the concept. These include the following:
Suffice it to say that the mechanisms of heredity were poorly understood in the 19th century before the experiments on pea plants conducted by the renowned scientist Gregor Mendel became known among the scientific community after the spring of 1900. A clear understanding of the basic rules of genetics and heredity would not emerge for decades after Bell’s death in 1922.
Bell was extremely progressive in his views about women and their role in society. In a 1901 letter from Bell to his wife Mabel, he wrote—
“If only the educated can vote, they not only rule the uneducated, but have the power to prevent the latter from being educated — a dangerous power to place in the hands of a class.
If women are excluded, men not only rule the affairs of women, but have the power to PREVENT women from ever getting a franchise unless THEY (the men) choose — an equally dangerous power.”
He goes even further, saying—
“And so with women — who are — on the average more intelligent and better educated than men — at least in America. The bulk of the men go to work early, and the preponderance of girls in the high schools of the country is very marked.
The girls who receive a high school education so enormously outnumber the boys as quite to outweigh the preponderance of males receiving a university education. While women do not, excepting in very exceptional cases, reach as high a point in education as men, still, taken as a whole the general level of intelligence and culture is, I think, indisputably higher among women than men, and the difference becomes more marked as you go down in the social scale.”
Bell also believed that all adult citizens had a right to vote regardless of wealth, income, gender, social status, race, ethnicity, or any other restriction. In the previously noted letter from Bell to his wife Mabel, he wrote, “I believe in universal suffrage, without qualification of education, sex, color or property.”
Bell went on to tell his wife, “I am quite sure that you are much better able to vote intelligently than a farm laborer who can neither read nor write, and yet you are denied the right to vote — if you so desire — and he is not. One half of the whole population — and that the more intelligent half — is utterly disfranchised.”
According to Bell, “I do not recommend women to vote — that is a matter for themselves entirely to decide — but I have no right to prevent them from doing so. Men, having at the present time the sole legal power of voting, have abused their power by denying to women the exercise of what is a natural right under the republican form of government.”
It was not until 1920 that the US Congress ratified the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.
The controversial case, Buck v. Bell, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws mandating the sterilization of the mentally handicapped did not violate the Constitution, was decided in 1927.
The “Bell” in Buck v. Bell was Dr. John H. Bell, who had no relationship whatsoever to Alexander Graham Bell, who died in 1922.
Dr. John H. Bell was a prominent eugenicist and physician in Virginia, who advocated for the forced sterilization of people believed to be incompetent. Appointed superintendent of the State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded in Lynchburg, John Bell became a principal in the lawsuit arranged by the former superintendent to test Virginia’s 1924 legislation allowing for forced sterilization.
Carrie Elizabeth Buck, a patient at the colony, had been selected for the test case. John Bell performed the operation on Buck himself. In its landmark ruling in Buck v. Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s law.
Bell was a strong and early believer in equal rights. In 1876, Bell hired draftsman Lewis Howard Latimar, the son of a former slave, to execute his drawings and assist in the preparation of patent applications for his invention of the telephone. In 1904, Bell wrote a letter to then U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt calling for a State Department investigation into the “protection to colored citizens of the United States in Canada.”
The letter was prompted by the poor treatment Bell’s employee, Mr. Charles Thompson, received while traveling to Bell’s estate on Cape Breton Island, Canada. Thompson, a Black man, and his wife, had been denied accommodations at multiple hotels in Sydney, a port city on the Island.
In the letter, Bell notes that Thompson, “is an upright, conscientious man whom I have the highest confidence. He has traveled with me in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, France, Italy and Great Britain, as well as in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and never outside of his own country has he been discriminated against on account of his color except in Sydney, Cape Breton Island.”