Royal Institute

A New Method: The Story of Louis Braille

Chapter 3. The Royal Institute for Blind Youth

The Royal Institute for Blind Youth was located in a rundown old building near the River Seine. The building was damp, dark, and poorly ventilated, and the food was inadequate. Dr. Guillié, the director of the Institute, was a proud and stubborn man whose decisions were not always based on what was best for the children.

However, the Institute offered advantages that could not be found elsewhere. There, blind girls and boys could study grammar, geography, history, arithmetic, science, and music, and they could learn a trade that would enable them to earn a living.

Louis was an outstanding student and excelled in every subject. He especially enjoyed the music classes, and he became a fine pianist and an accomplished organist. When he was sixteen, he accepted a paid position as organist for a small church near the Institute. For most of his life, he served as organist at one or more of the churches in Paris.

Learning at the Institute was primarily by listening to the lessons and repeating them. There were a few books. Valentin Haüy had developed a printing system by which the letters were raised, or embossed. The books were large and heavy, and feeling each letter one at a time was slow. It was the best method available at that time, however, and the children eagerly read every raised-letter book they could find.

A new director, Dr. Pignier, was appointed in 1821. Dr. Pignier was an intelligent and gentle man, a kind of father figure for the children. He immediately set about to improve conditions at the Institute and to introduce new and interesting activities for the children.

The children especially enjoyed the weekly rope walk to the Botanical Gardens. Led by a sighted teacher at the head of a rope, about twelve children held on to the rope behind the teacher. They walked this way to the gardens where they heard new sounds, listened to birds’ songs, smelled the garden fragrances, and listened to the teacher describe the flowers and trees. Sometimes they went to the Museum of Natural Sciences where they were allowed to touch some of the exhibits.

Although Valentin Haüy, now in his seventies, had returned to Paris in 1817, Dr. Guillié, the director of the Institute at that time, had wanted nothing to do with him. He would not even permit him to visit the Institute. Mr. Haüy lived a lonely life in a small apartment a few blocks from the school he had founded forty-eight years ago.

When Dr. Pignier, the new director, learned of the unkind way in which Mr. Haüy had been treated, he helped the students plan a special celebration to welcome him back to the school. On August 21, 1821, Dr. Pignier sent a carriage to bring Valentin Haüy to the Institute. The teachers and students applauded as the seventy-six-year-old man entered. Deeply touched, he talked with the students and told them of his love and gratitude. During the program in his honor, a chorus of students sang a song that had been written in 1788 by some of the Institute’s first pupils. (Those early students had written the song in tribute to their founder and had first sung it for him on Valentine’s Day thirty-three years ago.) Mr. Haüy was so overcome that all he could say was, “It is God who has done everything.” He died seven months later.

The events of the day made a lasting impression on twelve-year-old Louis Braille, and he felt deep love and admiration for Mr. Haüy. That same year he began experimenting with circles, squares, and triangles cut from leather in an attempt to develop a special alphabet for the blind.

Next: Chapter 4. A New Method