Manuscript Find could end Royal Society dispute from 1662
- 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.
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
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
"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."
When Mr Holder was called away to take up another post, Mr Wallis took
"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
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
"It helps solve one of the grand disputes of the Royal Society, and is
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
"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
"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
"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.