John Wallis – the Sermons, and his Letter to Robert Boyle “Teaching a person Dumb and Deaf to speak”
By Hugh Dominic W Stiles, on 1 August 2016
The Sermons (1791 edition) are not what I would call my literature of choice, but John Wallis was notable for us in his attempts to educate a deaf boy, Alexander Popham. It was the cause of a huge row in the early Royal Society, as William Holder said that he had taught Popham, and this was not acknowledged by Wallis.
A memoir of Wallis, with additional notes by the Rev. C.E. de Coetlogon, says:
About the year 1653 he published his Tractatus de Loquela Grammatici-Physicus, since reprinted many times; wherein he gives a particular account of the physical or mechanical formation of sounds used in speech, or expressed by the letters of several languages: a design which is not known to have been (before him) undertaken by any person; in pursuance of which, he hath undertaken, with success, to teach some dumb persons to speak. To which is added, a letter of the Doctor’s to Mr. Thomas Beverly, concerning his method of instruction, which he says he had taught Mr. Alexander Popham, born deaf, to speak distinctly, and to express his mind tolerably well by writing, and to understand what was written to him by others, as he had also done to Mr. Daniel Whaley. (p.lvii)
Our copy came from the library of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the celebrated playwright. Quite why he was interested in Wallis I cannot say – perhaps he bought his books in bulk, perhaps Sheridan was just interested in the ideas and use of language. Selwyn Oxley also bought a collection of Wallis’s essays on ‘The Doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, ex libris one John Bedford, and Number 61 of the Philosophical Transactions from 1670, which contains the letter of Wallis to Robert Boyle “concerning the said doctors Essay of Teaching a person Dumb and Deaf to speak, and to understand a Language” etc.’ Wallis does tell us that Popham may have been able to speak previously, having lost his hearing ‘by accident’ aged about five, ‘but doth scarce remember it’ (p.1093). I attach the complete short essay here – A Letter of Doctor John Wallis to Robert Boyle Esq.
This is the first page below, sadly covered with Oxley’s spidery hand!
An audio file of a Royal Society talk by David Cram on Wallis and his dispute with Holder is to be found here. Unfortunately there is still no video for some reason – see comments below – https://royalsociety.org/science-events-and-lectures/2012/wallis-holder-dispute/
Also, if you read the comments you will note that David Cram and Jaap Maat are writing a book on the notebook of Popham.