Born in 1809, Louis was a surprise to his family. At the age of 42, his mother had thought she was beyond child bearing age, and she and her 44 year old husband were already the parents of two teenagers and a 12 year old.
But now in the small village of Coupvray 25 miles east of Paris, baby Louis was a blessing to his family. But Louis’ birth was hard and he was so weak, his father rushed him to a priest to have him immediately baptized in the likely event the baby would die.
Yet nurtured by his family, Louis survived. And his struggle brought him much closer to his family, who adored him and played with him, in the lovely little cottage where they resided.
To support the family, his father made saddles and other leather products on his work bench in their home.
While the father cut and shaped his leather products, sometimes he would set the child on his workbench just to enjoy him. And the bright and curious Louis would absorb what his father was doing and he would want to imitate him.
But when his father was not working, his tools were kept carefully out of reach of tiny Louis. But one day when his father wasn’t present, 3 year old Louis somehow got ahold of his father’s tools and to imitate his father thrust a sharp instrument into either the bench or a piece of leather.
Suddenly, the sharp instrument bounced back into Louis’s right eye and the child screamed out in pain.
His family rushed to him and saw the blood running between the teeny fingers covering his eye. As they moved his fingers away, they knew the injury was severe and immediately got him medical attention. But at that time, no-one knew of microscopic bacteria and Louis was treated by unwashed hands and bandaged with unsterile coverings.
The result was that his eye became infected and the infection spread. Soon he lost his vision in both eyes.
Most blind people of that time became shut-ins but Louis’ parents and sisters and brother compassionately helped him cope with his disability. His father made canes for him and with the help of his family; Louis learned to navigate his home, the village and the country paths that surrounded it.
And despite being blind, he was enrolled in the local one room school where he became a top student, one who so impressed his teachers and the clergy that he was encouraged to continue his education.
At the age of 10, Louis was accepted at the Institut Royal des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for Blind Youth) in Paris, the world’s first school for blind children, joining about 70 other blind students.
The school’s sighted founder, Valentin Hauy, a humanitarian, was determined to educate blind children and he created text books with raised imprints. The children could feel the text and slowly absorb its message, a real breakthrough for its time.
But by the time Louis was enrolled, the French Revolution had taken place; Napoléon had seized power and was overthrown, with the Bourbon dynasty restored. In the chaos, Valentin’s original school was closed and then reopened but in a rundown rotted building, overwhelmed in stench from filth, mold and mildew.
Instead of restoring the now 70 ish Valentin to run the school he had founded, the French government chose Dr. Sebastien Guillie, a disciplinarian who tightly controlled costs. Despite icy winters the children did without heat. And although Guillie was a doctor, he took no special care of their heath.
Their daily diet was often just soup, a small piece of meat, with some bread and water to sustain them on a six day a week school schedule that began at 7 am and ended at 8 pm with a break for lunch.
But despite those terrible conditions, these blind students were among the lucky few to receive an education and they grew to accept being cold and hungry, as they built bonds of support among one another.
And that was especially true for Louis who joyously immersed himself in learning.
Using Valentin Hauy’s method in text books, the children learned to finger read Greek and Latin and learned English, Italian and Spanish grammar as well as poetry and math. And they were taught to play music using violins, cellos, a piano and even a small organ.
By the time Louis was 12 years old, not only had he become a top student, but also along with his friend and fellow student Gabriel Gauthier, both boys became talented musicians.
But Louis had also begun to rethink Valentin’s method of raised lettering in text books to determine if he could create a far more effective tool for reading and writing.
And soon Louis Braille had some profound ideas that would revolutionize education and communication for the blind and open a whole new world to them, as you will see next week.