Philanthropic priest and inventor of the sign alphabet for the instruction of the deaf and dumb; was b. November 25, 1712; d. December 23, 1789
Epee, CHARLES-MICHEL DE L', a philanthropic priest and inventor of the sign alphabet for the instruction of the deaf and dumb; was b. at Versailles, November 25, 1712; d. at Paris, December 23, 1789. He studied theology, but, having refused to sign a condemnation of Jansenism, was denied ordination by Christophe de Beaumont, Archbishop of Paris. He then studied law, but no sooner had he been admitted to the Bar than the Bishop of Troyes consented to ordain him. This bishop died shortly afterwards, thereupon the Abbé de l'Epée returned to Paris, and began to occupy himself with the education of two deaf and dumb sisters who had been recommended to him by Father Vanin, of the Congregation of the Christian Doctrine. He endeavored to develop the minds of his pupils by means of certain conventional signs constituting a complete alphabet. Succeeding in this attempt, he resolved to devote himself to the education of the deaf and dumb, and founded a school for their instruction at his own expense. His method is based on the principle that "the education of deaf mutes must teach them through the eye what other people acquire through the ear". Several other methods had been tried, previous to this time, to enable the deaf and dumb to communicate with one another and with the rest of mankind, but there can be no doubt that he attained far greater success than Pereira, Bulwer, Dalgarno, Dr. John Wallis, or any of his predecessors, and that the whole system now followed in the instruction of deaf mutes virtually owes its origin to his ingenuity and devotion. His own system has, in its turn, been replaced by a newer method which teaches the pupils to recognize words and, in time, to utter them, by closely watching, and afterwards imitating, the motion of the lips and tongue in speech, the different portions of the vocal organs being shown by means of diagrams. Excellent results have thus been attained, deaf and dumb persons acquiring the ability to converse fluently. This method has of late increased in favor. But it remains true that the Abbé de l'Epée by his sign system laid the foundations of all systematic instruction of the deaf and dumb, a system which was further developed by his pupil and successor, the Abbé Sicard.
The Abbé de l'Epée became known all over Europe. The Emperor Joseph II himself visited his school. The Duke of Penthièvre, as well as Louis XVI, helped him with large contributions. In 1791, two years after his death, the National Assembly decreed that his name should be enrolled among the benefactors of mankind, and undertook the support of the school he had founded. In 1838 a bronze monument was erected over his grave in the church of Saint-Roth in Paris. He published in 1776 "Institution des sourds-muets par la voie des signes methodiques"; in 1794, "La véritable manière d'instruire les sourds et muets, confirmée par une longue experience". He also began a "Dictionnaire general des signs", which was completed by the Abbé Sicard. (See Education of the Deaf.)