Some famous deaf people throughout history

By seriniti , on 20 October 2022 - 8 minutes to read

This article is about deaf people. To be born deaf or totally deaf is to live in absolute silence, detached from all relations with the world around us. Although our sympathy goes more readily to the blind, there is certainly nothing so heavy as the silence in which a deaf child evolves. Plugging his ears will never give us an idea of what a patient with such a handicap may feel. With the corollary, in the case of profound deafness, a very difficult acquisition of language despite the early adaptation of an implant to bring a semblance of hearing. The idea that these children were mute because they were deaf never crossed the mind of any doctor or philosopher until a relatively recent date on the scale of humanity.

And yet, many deaf people, in the American way, have managed to overcome this terrible handicap and turn it into an asset with the will to study, to run businesses (or whatever), to make music, to be in politics and many other things.

Here are some of these remarkable people, although this list is far from being exhaustive. Let’s try a chronology although in the Antiquity, it remains difficult to have certainties and very often, only the poets and the writers will evoke their infirmity, which, of course, seems excluded for the musicians.


Charlemagne, a famous deaf person in history.

Let’s start with Charlemagne, who was no more Emperor of the French than he was bearded, let alone flowered. But never mind the legend. In the pass of Roncesvalles, attacked by the Vascons (the ancestors of the Basques), he left Roland in the rear guard, anxious to bring back his prodigious booty in a safe place. It is said that he did not hear Roland play the olifant to call for help (this ancestor of the horn, carved in an elephant’s tusk and whose shape already prefigured the acoustic horn). Let us specify moreover that very early in the Antiquity of the tribes used naturally a conch (shell) by applying it to the pointed and cut side to hear better. This conch, spiral like the inner ear and that all children put at the other end to “hear the sea” (the own blood circulation of their ear in fact, naturally amplified by the shell).

Pierre Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay

The princes of the Pléiade, Pierre Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay, both born in 1525, became deaf very early. This sentence, ” these two deaf people were made to hear each other”, was written for them and du Bellay wrote a hymn to deafness (available here) which he dedicated to Ronsard.

Nicolas Boileau

Man of letters of the “Grand Siècle”, theorist of classical aesthetics in literature.

Ch. M. de la Condamine

Geographer known for his irascibility. Received by Buffon at the French Academy in 1760. Was his irascibility due to his deafness ?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, famous deaf person of the History.

Born one year after the death of Nicolas Boileau. At the age of 24, Rousseau will describe his deafness in Confessions: “One morning when I was no worse than usual […] I felt a sudden and almost inconceivable revolution in my whole body […] This intense noise was so great that it took away the sharpness of hearing I had before […] After a few weeks, seeing that I was neither better nor worse, I left the bed and resumed my ordinary life with my beating of the arteries and my buzzing […]. I gave up the narrow diet, I resumed the use of wine and all the lifestyle of a healthy man…” It is clear that this great misanthrope knew how to live !


The painter Goya fell suddenly deaf at the age of 46 while he was in Cadiz at the home of a collector friend. He had more than 30 years to live and the cause of his deafness remains a mystery to this day


Beethoven adapted as best he could to his deafness and produced his most beautiful symphonies with this handicap. He was the subject of a separate article (here).

Graham Bell

Speech therapist who invented the telephone !

Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, famous deaf person of the History.

Thomas Edison

Self-taught genius who registered no less than 1,093 patents during his long life and improved the telegraph… It is said that he became deaf after a resounding slap.

Ferdinand Berthier

Deaf from the age of 4, he created the Central Society of Deaf Mutes of Paris, to whom Victor Hugo confided: ” What does the deafness of the ear matter when the mind hears. The only deafness, the real deafness, the incurable deafness, is that of the intelligence.

The 19th century has its share of authors who carry this handicap:

Octave Feuillet

Member of the French Academy, the Musset of the families, of which certain quotations remained famous. He was depressed, perhaps as a consequence of this handicap, which he turned into an asset.

Jules Goncourt

Jules Goncourt created, with his brother, the Academy of the same name. He died young, of a tertiary syphilis, probably at the origin of his deafness.

The Goncourt brothers (Jules, on the right).

Louis Gallet

French librettist and playwright, for a time director of the Lariboisière Hospital in Paris.

Henri Lavedan

From the French Academy, journalist and playwright. At his death, L’Illustration devoted to him an obituary written by Abel Bonnard, published in September 1940, who said in tribute ” Henri Lavedan has just left life, but he was already separated from men. An impassable deafness which deprived him of all commerce, without however giving him the benefits of silence…”

Charles Maurras

Later on, Charles Maurras, whose political ideas are well known, founded the French Action League and directed the newspaper L’Action Française, which he continued to publish during the occupation, was a member of the French Academy and supported the Vichy regime. Arrested at the Liberation, he was sentenced to life imprisonment and national degradation. He was pardoned in 1952 for health reasons. Author (among others) of Tragi-comédie de ma surdité.

Charles Nicolle

French microbiologist, he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1928 for his work on typhus. Member of the Academy of Sciences in 1929. It was around the age of 20, he said, that his hearing declined, leading him to turn to laboratory work. Author of a remarkable Lettre aux sourds.

Schopenhauer and Bergson

The philosophers Schopenhauer and Bergson were great deaf people whose strength of character enabled them to overcome their infirmity.

Hellen Adams Keller

Helen Adams Keller, famous deaf person of history

The extraordinary Hellen Adams Keller of whom Mark Twain said that with Napoleon she was the most fascinating person of the 19th century! Let us judge. Born in 1880 in Alabama, she was afflicted at the age of 19 months with a serious disease (scarlet fever) which had terrible consequences: loss of sight and deafness. In her book The story of mylife, published in 1905 in New York by Grosset de Dunlap, Helen Keller tells her story. At the age of 7, an extraordinary chance smiled upon her. Her parents took her to Washington to consult Dr. Alexander Graham Bell (yes, the one we just talked about), who taught sign language to deaf-mutes and who entrusted the little girl to Anne Mansfield Sullivan who taught her to use her hands to touch, to interpret, to ” open her prison and free her mind This is a demonstration, if one were needed, of the fabulous possibilities of reeducating a deaf, dumb and blind child by dint of patience, courage and willpower, not to mention the tenacity and skill of her educator Anne M. Sullivan. H. Keller learned French, German, Latin, Greek, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, history, poetry and literature.

Davide Lodge

Contemporary author, who will write Life on the Mute.

Behind these examples of famous deaf people, let’s not forget all the others who, individually, by dint of willpower, perseverance and with extraordinary traits of character have overcome this handicap, sometimes using it as a spur to surpass themselves. No, this handicap, as some have said, can never be considered as beneficial. But it can give rise to an inflexible will to succeed in these people.


• Histoire des maladies de l’oreille, du nez et de la gorge – Guerrier, Mounier-Kuhn, Éditions Dacosta -Paris

• Petit glossaire ORL pour tous, Jean-Jacques Hubinois


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