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Manuscript Find could end Royal Society dispute from 1662

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  • Michael Robinson
    Find could end 350-year science dispute By Jane Elliott Health reporter, BBC News Alexander was the first person born deaf to be taught to speak Who first
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 26, 2008
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      Find could end 350-year science dispute

      By Jane Elliott
      Health reporter, BBC News

      Alexander was the first person born deaf to be taught to speak
      Who first taught a boy born deaf to speak?

      The chance discovery of an antique notebook could have solved the
      350-year-old British scientific mystery.

      Alexander Popham was born deaf in around 1650 but his mother,
      determined to communicate with her son, hired two eminent scientists,
      John Wallis and William Holder, to teach him to speak.

      Both claimed success in what became a celebrated scientific controversy.

      Exciting discovery

      The story was lent additional interest because the boy was the
      grandson of the notorious Judge Popham, who sentenced both Mary Queen
      of Scots and Guy Fawkes to death.

      Now a yellowing, leather-bound notebook, found in a butler's cupboard
      in Littlecote House, Berkshire, a former home of the Pophams, appears
      to some experts to indicate that the methods of Mr Wallis were the key.

      He was a renowned mathematician, deciphered enemy codes for Cromwell
      during the English Civil War and was also an expert linguist.

      Up until now we have not been in a position to assess the validity of
      either claim
      Philip Beeley

      Philip Beeley, researcher in the faculty of linguistics and philology
      at the University of Oxford, and a world expert on John Wallis, said
      he had been fascinated by the book, which shows how Mr Wallis taught
      his charge.

      "William Holder claimed to have been successful, but when you go into
      the method that he used, it was quite outlandish.
      A page from the notebook
      The diagrams in the notebook show how to position the tongue

      "He investigated the structure of the ear and worked on the hypothesis
      that the problem was the ear drum itself that had become relaxed.

      "He felt that only when it was tight could it facilitate hearing and
      he set about an experiment beating a loud drum.

      "Holder found that when he beat a loud drum near Alexander, he could
      hear other sounds, including people calling his name.

      "He convinced a lot of people that he was successful."

      'Evidence'

      When Mr Holder was called away to take up another post, Mr Wallis took
      over.

      "We have not known an awful lot about the approach John Wallis took,"
      said Mr Beeley.

      "All we do know is that he wrote a little bit about it and later on it
      became the topic of a grand dispute within the Royal Society, with
      claim and counter-claim.

      "Up until now we have not been in a position to assess the validity of
      either claim.
      A page from Alexander's notebook
      Alexander was taught sentences

      "This find is potentially able to do this for us."

      Mr Wallis's approach was to start by looking at how the tongue, palate
      and lips looked when certain vowel sounds were made.

      He drew diagrams and used them to show Alexander how to form sounds.

      From there, Mr Wallis used the same method to help him form words.

      Mr Beeley said: "He starts out with a modern technique showing him how
      to produce sounds, and then he moves on from that to basic language
      constructions, with nouns and conjunctions.

      "Having looked at the notebook, I am fairly sure this is a book that
      would have been on the desk while John Wallis and Alexander Popham
      were sitting together.

      "We have evidence from his descendants that this instruction was
      successful.

      "It helps solve one of the grand disputes of the Royal Society, and is
      quite unique."

      'Strong stuff'

      Sentences learnt by Alexander and detailed in the notebook include "I
      have a knife in my hand" and "I have mony (sic) in my pocket" as well
      as "I have a hat, on my head" and "I have a band about my neck".

      Dr Beeley said he had no doubts that the notebook was genuine.

      "I have to admit that before I had the notebook in my hands I had my
      doubts," he said.

      "There have of course been occasions when people have been deceived,
      but I was very happy to see the notebook.

      It is about applying scientific method and whether you think Wallis
      was first or Holden was first doesn't really matter
      Keith Moore
      Royal Society
      "And now I have no doubt. I know John Wallis's hand and style and can
      say without any doubt that I am certain it is genuine."

      Keith Moore, head of library and archives at the Royal Society, said
      the notebook was a fantastic find.

      "It adds historical detail and any manuscript of this period is
      interesting," he said.

      "This is dated 1662 and right at the beginning of what we would call
      modern science.

      "The Royal Society was founded in 1660 and this is an early example of
      the practical applications of scientific methods."

      But he said it was unlikely to settle the dispute about who taught
      Alexander to speak, adding that the most important detail was the
      science itself.

      "Holden virtually accused Wallis of stealing his ideas and that smacks
      of plagiarism in science. It is pretty strong stuff," he said.

      "It does not matter whether it solves it - the Popham case was the
      beginning of a more scientific approach to therapy.

      "They were thinking about language and grammar, about the physiology
      of how people spoke and that is the important thing really.

      "It is about applying scientific method and whether you think Wallis
      was first or Holden was first doesn't really matter."

      Dr Beeley hopes that the book is stored in a library like the
      Bodleian, but the hotel chain, Warner, which now owns Littlecote, is
      deciding whether to keep it on display in the house.

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7511446.stm
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