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Fuller, Sarah (1836–1927)

Fuller, Sarah (1836–1927)

American educator of the deaf. Born on February 15, 1836, in Weston, Massachusetts; died in Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts, on August 1, 1927; youngest of six children of Hervey (a farmer) and Celynda (Fiske) Fuller; attended local schools in Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts; graduated from the Allan English and Classical School of West Newton; never married; no children.

An early leader in the education of the deaf, Sarah Fuller was raised and educated in Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts, and spent her early career teaching at schools in Newton and Boston. In 1869, after a period of training under Harriet B. Rogers at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, Fuller was named principal of the Boston School for Deaf-Mutes (renamed the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in 1877), which opened on November 10, 1869, with ten students. The first institution of its kind in the country to be operated on a day-school basis, the school flourished under her leadership. Fuller strongly advocated teaching deaf children to speak, rather than sign, and believed that instruction should begin at the earliest possible age, views that were not always popular with her professional colleagues. In 1870, after hearing of Alexander Melville Bell's system of "Visible Speech," which utilized graphic symbols to represent speech sounds, Fuller invited his son, Alexander Graham Bell, to visit the school and teach the new technique to the faculty. It was Bell's work with the deaf that contributed significantly to his later development of the telephone.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Fuller attempted to promote her theories to the American Instructors of the Deaf and Dumb, a conservative professional organization that still favored manual speech. Receiving a cool reception from the group, partly because of her views and partly because she was a woman, Fuller, along with Dr. Bell, Caroline A. Yale , and others, united to form the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, of which she served as a director from 1896. Fuller's innovations did not always meet with resistance. In 1888, Mr. and Mrs. Francis Brooks, the parents of a deaf child who had benefitted from Fuller's approach, endowed the Sarah Fuller Home for Little Children Who Cannot Hear, the first school attempting to educate pre-school-age deaf children. (The home closed in 1925, after which the endowment was used to establish the Sarah Fuller Foundation for Little Deaf Children, part of the Hearing and Speech Clinic of the Children's Medical Center, in Boston.) Fuller also designed charts of speech exercises and wrote An Illustrated Primer (1888), a manual to assist instructors in teaching speech to the deaf. When time allowed, she and some of her colleagues taught speech reading to hard-of-hearing and speech-impaired adults. She is said to have given ten-year-old Helen Keller , who was both blind and deaf, her first speech lessons in 1890. Sarah Fuller retired in 1910 and died at her home in Newton Lower Falls at the age of 92.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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