By H Dominic W Stiles, on 17 May 2013
John Birkbeck Nevins (1818-1903) was one of those extraordinary Victorians “who combined the life of the scholar with that of the man of affairs” (Obituary 1903). Related on his mother’s side to George Birkbeck, Nevins had non-conformist and industrial roots. Like his contemporary Darwin with whom he shares some parallels, Nevins spent some time as an ‘apprentice’ doctor, and at the same time on long walks he developed his understanding of botany and zoology. After attending Guy’s as a medical student, then practising for a short while in Leeds, he got a position on a Hudson’s Bay Company vessel as a ship’s surgeon, and wrote a book about his experiences.
On his return from his voyages, obtaining a place as a lecturer in Chemistry and Natural Philosophy at Liverpool (a post he held from 1844-68) Nevins settled in that area. He also lectured in botany and medicine at the Liverpool School of Medicine. Nevins was appointed assistant-surgeon and subsequently surgeon, to the Eye and Ear Infirmary in 1853, a post he retained until 1877, when he retired and was appointed consulting surgeon. It was perhaps in this capacity that he became involved with the Liverpool Institution. Unfortunately we do not have the Liverpool Institution reports for the years from 1886-1909. He clearly took a great interest in the Liverpool school as will be seen from the attached document which I have scanned in full, that he took a great interest in sign language as used in the school: The Sign Language of the Deaf and Dumb, J. Birkbeck Nevins. I know little about the history of BSL linguistic studies, but this essay, presented before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool, seems to me to be quite an early and sympathetic attempt to present the language as a valid means of communication, with brief history of the education of Deaf people, followed by a look at some signs. Nevins compares sign language education with oral education. He says
The “Education Department” now wisely requires both systems to be taught in State-aided schools, while showing an apparent favour for the oral in preference to the sign system, founded upon the Report of the Royal Commission on Blind, Deaf, and Dumb, issued in 1889. In estimating the true value of this report on this particular question it is necessary to bear in mind that the Commission was originally formed with reference to the blind only, and fourteen of the eighteen commissioners were appointed while that was its sole object. The deaf and dumb were added as an afterthought some months afterwards, and four additional names were added, who represented the deaf and dumb interest. From special and exceptional circumstances one or two of these were in some sense committed to the oral system before appointment, but it is my confirmed belief that both the teachers in deaf and dumb schools, and also those who have had the longest and most practical acquaintance with the deaf and dumb prefer the sign system for general use, while willingly encouraging the addition of the oral system for the benefit of the more limited number who possess the time, the means, and also the intellectual capacity for making use of its more exacting requirements.
The copy we have is from the author to Richard Elliott of the Margate School.
A. H. SYKES, Dr J Birkbeck Nevins – sage of Liverpool