An Overview of Early ISD History

The story of ISD begins on the Mississippi River in 1838 when Senator Orville H. Browning from Quincy, Illinois, was traveling on a steamboat. He was impressed by a fellow traveler who was an educated Deaf man from Kentucky. Browning knew that Illinois did not offer educational opportunities for its deaf citizens and decided to pursue the issue in the Senate. On February 23, 1839, Governor Carlin signed Browning’s bill creating the Illinois Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. Abraham Lincoln was one of the supporters of the bill. Soon thereafter, a board of trustees was appointed. The men on the board were distinguished citizens. One had been the previous governor of Illinois, an Illinois Senator, and member of the U.S. Congress; one served as Attorney General, Secretary of State, and a member of the Illinois Supreme Court. 

The first superintendent and teacher was Thomas Officer who had been a teacher at the Ohio Institution. The first two students admitted to the school were Joseph M. Driskell, age 14, from Pleasant Valley and Susan Lovejoy, age 26, from Tremont. School officially opened with four students on January 26, 1846. When ISD opened for its second term on September 17, 1846, 14 students were present. Eight of the students had deaf relatives, and five of the 14 students eventually married someone who had attended ISD.

The first permanent teacher hired was Nathan Totten, a graduate of the New York Institution for the Deaf. His wife, Mary Totten, was ISD’s first matron. Mary had attended the American School for the Deaf in 1817 when it first opened. Thomas H. Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc were the teachers at that time. Mary’s best friend at school was Alice Cogswell.

By Mickey Jones, Ph.D.
January 29, 2014