From Founding to Opening the first School for the Blind in the United States

Student enrollment list from 1832.

Student enrollment list from 1832. The list includes Charles Arnott, Charles Morrill, Thomas Oaks, Maria Penniman, and Abigail and Sophia Carter.

January 23, 2018

John Dix Fisher (1797-1850) was a physician who had a profound impact on the field of medicine during his lifetime. At Perkins, we remember him as our founder. After graduating from medical school in 1825, Dr. John Dix Fisher left Massachusetts for Europe, where he trained with several renowned physicians. While in Paris, Fisher would visit l’Institut National Des Jeunes Aveugles, or the National Institute for Blind Children, the first school to educate children who are blind. Inspired by the visit, Fisher returns to Boston where he organizes to raise support and funds for a similar school, which the state of Massachusetts votes to incorporate in 1829. Despite this early incorporation, the New England Asylum for the Blind, as Perkins was then known, did not officially open its doors to students until 1832. What took so long? 

With funding procured, Fisher had to find a director for the school. Samuel Gridley Howe, whom he had known in college took the job, but after several others declined the position. Trained as a doctor, and recently returned from fighting in the Greek Civil War, Howe started his directorship by traveling to Europe. The trip was designed to afford him the opportunity to observe the methods and tools of educators who were already teaching children with blindness there. Howe's travels also provided him the opportunity to bring money from American supporters to Polish revolutionaries, which landed him in a German jail for five weeks. 

After his release, Howe went to France, England, and Scotland where he collected teaching materials and two teachers. Howe returned to the United States in 1832 having spent all the school’s funding on the trip to Europe but started by using a house owned by his father to house the school. With the help of his sisters and two new staff members, 1833 begins with a total of eight students, despite little public knowledge of the school and popular opinion that children who are blind could not be educated. 

Student recruitment began upon Howe's return to Boston. To this end, classified ads were used. A classified ad from the December 13, 1832, issue of the Boston Courier calls for student applications to this school, and it reads:  

New-England Asylum, 
For the Education of the Blind
The Trustees of the N.E. Asylum for the Education of the Blind, have the satisfaction of announcing that the experiment which they have been some time making on a few pupils, to ascertain their capacity for receiving a good moral, intellectual and physical education, has had so happy a result, that they confidently anticipate great benefit for this hitherto neglected class; and they propose to open their institution to the public in a short time.
    Blind persons under twenty years of age will be taught reading, writing, mathematics, geography, and all the common branches of education, as well as music; and be enabled to learn some handicraft work by which to gain (in part at least) a livelihood.
    As a limited number only can be received, applications for admission [post paid] should be sent in with a statement of the sex and age, as well as the physical abilities, &c. of each applicant. 
    Teachers are engaged from the best European Institutions, and no pains will be spared in giving to the pupils such an education as will render them happy and useful members of society.
For the Trustees.
Samuel G. Howe, Superintendent.
Boston, Sept. 9, 1832

Those papers out of Boston which was specially ordered to insert this advertisement will please continue to insert it 2aw 3m and send their bills to this office. 

In this ad, Howe proposes that students apply for admittance. He desired that only those who were successful in their studies remain. This was to prove this innovative idea a success, which would, in turn, secure more funding, ensure this school's growth and longevity, and eventually lead to the expansion of more schools. The vision Howe had was a place of education and preparation for a meaningful life in society, not an "asylum". The add reflects this goal by mentioning excellent teachers and that this education will, “render them happy and useful members of society.” It is a goal still relevant today

Sources: 

Dowling, Joseph Jr. “Quiet Pioneer: A tribute to Dr. John Dix Fisher ’20.” Brown Medicine, Spring 2011, http://brownmedicinemagazine.org/view/article.php?cw=cGFnZTE0MTU9MSZlbnQxMzE1ND1QQUdFJmVudDk0PTI5OCZjbnRwYWdlMTMxNT0xJmlzczk0PTEy

McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Founders. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA., http://www.perkins.org/history/people/founders#howe

Trent, James W. The manliest man. University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.