On March 6, 1891, 44-year-old Alexander Graham Bell gave a speech at the National Deaf-Mute College in Washington, DC, in which he essentially told an audience of deaf students they shouldn’t procreate.
“I am sure that there is no one among the deaf who desires to have his affliction handed down to his children,” the Scottish-born inventor explained to the stunned crowd.
Bell didn’t view his beliefs as controversial. He simply thought he was empowering deaf people “with the knowledge of how to prevent more of themselves,” writes Katie Booth in “The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness” (Simon & Schuster), out April 6.
“He assumed the deaf also wanted this,” she continues. “That these deaf students gathered before him would help him spread the word.”
Bell’s legacy may be as the inventor of the telephone, but when he was alive, he was also famous for his campaign to “cure” the deaf, saving them from what he perceived as a lonely and isolated existence. Not only did he advise them not to have children, he led the charge to eradicate sign language, which he believed separated the deaf from the “normal” world of English-speaking adults.
“In the deaf world . . . he’s remembered with rage,” Booth writes. “He’s the man who launched a war in which the deaf would have to fight for their lives.”
But Bell’s quest was also an ironic one: Born to a deaf mother, the inventor later fell in love with a deaf woman, Mabel Hubbard, and eventually married and had four children with her. Mabel’s father, meanwhile, funded much of Bell’s research — and encouraged him to focus on the telephone rather than saving the deaf from themselves.
Growing up in Edinburgh before emigrating to Canada at age 23, Bell was immersed in the deaf community while he was still a child. His father, linguist Alexander Melville Bell, developed a phonetic alphabet that he called Visible Speech, in which shapes corresponded with the way humans talk.
His mother Eliza, a pianist who began to go deaf in late childhood, was fiercely self-reliant.
“She could get around by herself, she could communicate her needs,” writes Booth. “No one really needed to know she was deaf.”
Bell wanted to help other deaf people become more like his mom, blending in perfectly with the hearing world, no longer objects of charity or pity. His dream was that their differences could be erased entirely.
“The fact that this was not what the deaf themselves were asking for didn’t concern [him] at all,” Booth writes.
Years before he invented the first working telephone, Bell’s pet project was creating a speech-reading device for the deaf, “something to serve the same purpose of ‘hearing,’ of understanding the speech of another,” Booth writes. His creation of the phonautograph used the ear from a human corpse to translate sound vibrations onto a glass plate using a stylus. (It failed to capture the public’s imagination, likely because it included a corpse’s ear.)
Bell found more success with oralism, an approach to teaching the deaf that favored speaking and lip reading over sign language. He took his methods everywhere from London to Boston, and launched a movement that discouraged signing as “a language that made the deaf less than human, on the level of indigenous people, or, simply, primates,” writes Booth.
One of his young pupils was a teenage girl named Mabel Hubbard, daughter of the powerful Boston lawyer and investor Gardiner Greene Hubbard. In 1873, Hubbard arranged for his 17-year-old daughter to take oralism lessons with Bell, then 26. During one of his visits to the Hubbard home, Bell was seated at the piano and mentioned to Mabel’s father, “Mr. Hubbard, sir, do you know that if I depress the forte pedal and sing ‘do’ into the piano, the proper note will answer me?”
Hubbard, always looking for another investment — he had bankrolled the first trolley line between Boston and Cambridge in 1856, among other projects — was intrigued. When Bell mentioned his ideas for a harmonic telegraph, a device that allowed multiple messages to be transmitted over a wire at the same time, Hubbard offered to fund his experiments.
He would “support the costs of his invention but not [Bell’s] living expenses,” Booth writes. “In the end, they would share the profits.”
The problems started when Bell fell in love with Hubbard’s daughter Mabel.
“He was so entertaining,” Mabel wrote of Bell, “and managed to make the dullest thing so interesting with the stories of which he was brimful.”
As for Bell, he was impressed by her ability to read lips almost effortlessly. “I could talk to her as I could not talk to other people,” he wrote. Not only could she understand his scientific ideas, but she was also interested in them and even enthusiastic. And because Mabel had lost her hearing at five years old, after narrowly surviving scarlet fever, he felt reassured that her deafness wasn’t a hereditary condition.
What’s more, Mabel’s feelings about deafness lined up perfectly with those of her future husband. She didn’t identify as deaf. In fact, appearing as if she could hear as well as anybody “was a guiding tenant of her life,” writes Booth.
In June of 1875, Bell wrote a letter to Mabel’s mother, confessing his love for her daughter. “I am ready and willing to give my whole heart to her,” he wrote.
Hubbard, however, wasn’t supportive of Bell’s relationship with his daughter. He was concerned the inventor was focusing his energies too much on the deaf and not enough on the telegraph.
The lawyer soon learned to use the relationship as a bartering tool, offering Bell an ultimatum: To turn his back entirely on Visible Speech, his tutoring, and his teaching school. “To pursue the woman he loved, [Bell] would have to give up the work he loved,” Booth writes.
As Hubbard wrote to Bell in April of 1876, “If you could make one good invention in the telegraph, you would secure an annual income . . . and then you could settle that on your wife and teach VisibleSpeech and experiment in telegraphy with an easy and undisturbed conscience.”
Bell was unmoved by Hubbard’s arguments until Thanksgiving of 1875, Mabel’s 18th birthday, when she sided with her father and agreed to marry Bell only if he made the telephone his priority.
Eventually, with a heavy heart, he agreed to her terms. On March 7, 1876, Bell was awarded a patent for the telephone. Days later, he made the first-ever telephone call to his partner, Thomas Watson, with a request that became immortalized in history books: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.”
On July 11, 1877, when she was 19, Mabel married Bell in the backyard of her parents’ Cambridge home.
Throughout their marriage, Bell used his father’s Visible Speech methods to encourage her to speak, however much she struggled.
The inventor “loved the sound of her voice,” Booth writes. “Loved her face when she could see that he was loving her voice.”
But when he wasn’t around, Mabel — who eventually gave birth to two daughters — was almost entirely alone. “Mabel’s closest community was limited to those who could understand her speech,” writes Booth. “At home, this was primarily her family, and her family was primarily [Bell], who was gone more and more of the time.”
Mabel never turned on her husband, although she was disturbed when his interests turned to discouraging deaf intermarriage. In 1884, Bell published a paper titled “Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race,” which he presented to the National Academy of Sciences that same year, warning that if deaf people began socializing and inevitably intermarrying, they would create “a defective race of human beings [that] would be a great calamity to the world.”
Mabel never spoke out against him or his anti-deaf marriage views in public, but in her private correspondence with Bell, she was much more critical.
“Your deaf-mute business is hardly human to you,” she wrote to him in 1895.
“You are very tender and gentle to the deaf children, but their interest to you lies in their being deaf, not in their humanity.”
Bell never abandoned oralism. He found a new champion in Helen Keller, a deaf and blind young girl who embodied all of his ideals. He met her in 1887 when she was just 6 years old, and she became a true oralism success story, the first deaf-and-blind person to read and write and speak in English with fluency and graduate from a university with a bachelor’s degree. She dedicated her 1903 memoir, “The Story of My Life,” to Bell, crediting him with teaching the deaf “to speak and enabled the listening ear to hear speech from the Atlantic to the Rockies.”
But she was an outlier. For every deaf child who learned to speak, “there were nine children who struggled, who were set back more and more with each passing month of their oralist education.”
During his lifetime, Bell was successful in his attempts to demonize sign language and make oralism the norm. Before the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Mass., opened in 1867 — funded by Bell’s father-in-law — all deaf schools in America used sign language. By 1918, 80 percent of deaf students were educated orally.
Mabel stayed publicly loyal to Bell until the end. Five months after her husband died at 75 in 1922, she succumbed to cancer. But just before she passed, she confessed her true feelings in a letter to her daughter Elsie.
“Having taught you all my life to forget that I was deaf,” she wrote, “I now want you to remember it.”
Almost a century later, Bell’s beliefs about deaf intermarriage and the dangers of sign language are largely forgotten. From Gov. Cuomo being ordered by a federal judge to add sign-language interpretation in his daily televised coronavirus briefings to Apple stores introducing sign language support at hundreds of retail stores in a dozen countries, signing is no longer a maligned form of communication.
While Bell may have had the best of intentions, he ultimately ended up doing more harm than good.
“He aspired to something so big that it would be perceived as a miracle,” Booth writes. “But his focus on the miracle came to subsume the work of observation, attention, empathy. He let the saving get the better of him.”