Rogers, Harriet B. (1834–1919)

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Rogers, Harriet B. (1834–1919)

American educator of the deaf. Born Harriet Burbank Rogers in North Billerica, Massachusetts, on April 12, 1834; died in North Billerica, Massachusetts, on December 12, 1919; fourth of five daughters of Calvin Rogers (a farmer) and Ann (Faulkner) Rogers (the daughter of a woolen manufacturer); attended local schools; graduated from Massachusetts State Normal School in West Newton in 1851; never married; no children.

Began private instruction of a young deaf girl (1863); opened her own school for deaf children (June 1866); appointed director of Clarke Institution for Deaf Mutes (1867); resigned due to ill health (1886).

Harriet B. Rogers was the first American woman to teach deaf children solely through the use of the German oral method of speaking and lip reading. Rogers started her career in teaching after graduating from the Massachusetts State Normal School in 1851. She taught for a time in country schools and for several years at the Westford (Massachusetts) Academy. Rogers' eldest sister, Elisa Ann Rogers , was also a teacher, and had taught Laura Bridgman , the first successfully educated deaf and blind child in the United States. It was through Elisa Ann that Rogers was asked to take on Fanny Cushing , a young deaf girl, as a private student in 1863. Though she was unsure of her qualifications for the task, Rogers decided that it was the path her life was meant to take. The Cushings wanted their daughter to learn how to speak even though the predominant method for teaching the deaf in the United States at the time was through manual alphabet or sign language. One of Rogers' friends gave her a newspaper article about a German school where the deaf were taught to speak by physically feeling breath patterns and vocal vibrations on the teacher's chest and throat, and then attempting to reproduce the same physical effects themselves. Rogers was able to use this method with Cushing and was quite successful.

In 1865, Rogers met Gardiner Greene Hubbard, a lawyer, businessman, and member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education. Hubbard's young daughter Mabel Hubbard (later Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell) had become deaf, and he experienced dismay in 1863 at his inability to provide her with a teacher to help her learn to speak. He and his wife had managed to teach their daughter to speak and read lips somewhat before she completely lost her ability to hear. In 1864, Hubbard had tried unsuccessfully to charter a school for the deaf based on speech and lip reading. After meeting Rogers, he encouraged her to solicit more students and open her own school, which she did with five students in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, in June 1866. Hubbard did not give up on chartering a school, and was finally able to obtain financial support for the school's endowment from John Clarke of Northampton, Massachusetts. On June 1, 1867, a charter was granted for the Clarke Institution for Deaf Mutes (later Clarke School for the Deaf), and Rogers was named the school's director. This was the first school in the United States to teach the deaf exclusively through speech and lip reading.

The Clarke School was considered exceedingly experimental, because the prevailing belief at the time was that manual alphabet and sign language were the only practical forms of communication for the deaf. At first, it was primarily female teachers who embraced the new oral method. They often felt that it was their mission to see the method succeed against staunch opposition from teachers of sign language, who were mostly men and who looked upon the oral method with disdain and labeled its proponents as "visionary enthusiasts." A competition of sorts ensued between the two methods. Rogers and her dedicated group of teachers were on the forefront of the "oralists." In 1871–72, Rogers spent a year in Europe where she studied German schools using oral principles to teach the deaf. While the German method was intended for the partially deaf and those who had lost their hearing after the age of four, Rogers proved it could be effective for many children who were born deaf. Over time, the number of oral schools increased, and traditional schools began to implement a method that taught and employed speech in the classroom while students continued to use sign language outside of the classroom. Another sign that the oral method was gaining approval occurred when the American Instructors of the Deaf, at its 1886 convention, encouraged all efforts to instruct deaf students on how to speak and read lips. In 1890, the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf was formed.

Rogers remained director of the Clarke School, with assistance from Caroline A. Yale beginning in 1873. By 1884, Rogers took a leave of absence and went to Colorado in an effort to alleviate bronchial problems, but her failing health forced her to resign as director in 1886. She lived out the rest of her days in North Billerica, where she spent some of her time supervising a local kindergarten. A lifelong Unitarian, Rogers died of chronic bronchitis and emphysema in 1919, at the age of 85.

sources:

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1605–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

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

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Susan J. Walton , freelance writer, Berea, Ohio