The Driving Force; One of Three ASD Founders of the First Permanent Institute for the Deaf in North America
Mason Fitch Cogswell was born on September 28, 1761, in Canterbury, Connecticut. He was the third son of the Rev. James Cogswell and Alice Fitch. Mason’s mother, a descendant of Captain John Mason, who fought in the Pequot War, died when he was eleven years old. His father remarried, and Mason was sent to live with Samuel and Martha Huntington. Samuel Huntington was a well-known jurist, statesman, the 12th signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the 18th governor of Connecticut. He took an interest in Mason’s welfare and encouraged him to enroll at Yale College, of which both Mason’s father and brother were graduates. Mason graduated from Yale in 1780 as valedictorian and the youngest student in his class.
Mason studied medicine under his brother, Dr. James Cogswell, and set up a successful practice in Hartford. He was devoted to his work and was said to have ridden ten miles in freezing weather to operate on a child who was in a critical condition. He was a skillful surgeon who performed with exceptional accuracy and neatness. Mason was among the first in the country to operate on cataracts and pioneered in surgical ophthalmology. He became a distinguished surgeon and published articles in the New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery.
He was a member of the Hartford Wits, a group of Federalist poets who produced a substantial body of political satire just after the American Revolution. The Wits supported a strong central government that called for stability and order.
Mason married Mary Austin Ledyard, the step-daughter of one of the two owners of the Federalist Courant, now the Hartford Courant, and recognized as the oldest continuously published newspaper in the United States. They settled in Hartford and had five children.
He was known as a courteous, cheerful, and charming man who enjoyed dancing, playing the flute, and attending parties. He continued to wear knee breeches and silk stockings even after they were out of fashion. Mason was devoted to his wife Mary, who was widely admired in Hartford society for her common sense, calm judgment, and dignity. She made the Cogswell house on 8 Prospect Street in Hartford a center of culture and refinement.
Their lives took an unexpected turn when their third child, Alice, became deaf at age two from spinal meningitis. They were devastated and took her to doctors who attempted various procedures to cure her of deafness. When all efforts proved to be futile, they reconciled themselves to Alice’s condition and searched for ways to communicate with her. The family developed a system of home signs and subsequently enrolled Alice in Lydia Sigourney’s school along with two of their daughters.
Rather than send Alice abroad to be educated, Mason and his wife sought to establish a school for deaf children in Connecticut. He and Mr. Sylvester Gilbert, an attorney who had five deaf children, helped to commission a consensus of deaf people and petitioned for funds from the State Legislature. They were not successful in securing state funds. Still, several years later, Mason and a small group of prominent men from the Hartford area were able to raise funds to send Thomas H. Gallaudet to Europe to study methods of instruction for the deaf. Gallaudet was a neighbor of the Cogswell family who took an interest in Alice. After a year, he brought back Laurent Clerc from Paris and opened the school in 1817. Alice was the first student registered, and Mason continued his interest and devotion to the school over the years. His eldest daughter, Mary Austin, married Lewis Weld, who became the second principal (Superintendent) of the American Asylum.
The family had a servant and cherished friend, Lydia, who lived with them for 30 years. She had been abducted from her father, an African tribal chieftain in Africa, and forced into slavery. After she was freed, Mason helped her with a lockjaw ailment that several doctors had given up trying to cure. When Mason got married, Lydia pledged her loyalty to his family until her death.
The Connecticut Medical Society and Yale College conferred upon Mason honorary degrees. He was a man of varied interests and was often influential in town meetings. He also played a crucial role in the establishment of the Retreat for the Insane in Hartford, one of the new institutions that practiced the “humane” treatment of the mentally ill.
He died of pneumonia on December 10, 1830, at age sixty-nine, leaving his wife, four daughters and one son. Alice, his daughter, whom he adored and was devoted to, was grief-stricken and died 13 days after his death. They are buried in the Cogswell family plot at the Old North Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut.
Dr. Cogswell played a vital role in the establishment of the first school for the deaf in America. He also left a medical library of 250 volumes that was far larger than most possessed by many physicians at the time.