In 1876, a well-dressed young lady in her early twenties joined Alexander Graham Bell on the stage of the old Providence Theatre. Bell, the noted teacher of vocal physiology and inventor of the telephone, had invited Jeanie Lippitt and her parents to join his public demonstration of one of the first long-distance telephone calls. Jeanie followed the conversation with interest and answered politely when spoken to – even though she could not hear a single word of the messages transmitted over the telephone.
Jeanie, the eldest daughter of Governor and Mrs. Henry Lippitt, was completely deaf.
Twenty years earlier, in the spring of 1856, a scarlet fever epidemic struck Providence. In less than a month, the disease carried off three of Jeanie’s older siblings and completely destroyed four-year-old Jeanie’s hearing. Her mother, Mary Ann Lippitt, responded to this tragedy by adamantly deciding that Jeanie’s loss of hearing would not be a handicap. Stating that no daughter of hers would “go through life flipping her fingers to make herself understood,” she resolved that Jeanie would be taught to lip-read and speak.
Mary Ann Lippitt devoted hours to teaching her daughter. When Jeanie was able to communicate adequately, she began to attend a private day school in Providence. Although her hearing loss necessitated some changes to the traditional curriculum, she was an exemplary student. Jeanie even learned to speak French, serving as the Lippitt family’s translator when they lived for a time in France.
Jeanie’s success made her a key figure in the campaign to establish new schools for the deaf in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Existing schools in the United States favored manualism, an early form of sign language that eventually developed into ASL – the “flipping fingers” that Mary Ann Lippitt deplored. Oralism, teaching the deaf to speak and lip-read, slowly became mainstream in the 1860s, along with the understanding that people with hearing disabilities should be integrated into mainstream society.
In 1877, during her father’s tenure as Rhode Island governor, Jeanie visited the Rhode Island Statehouse and urged members of the General Assembly to create a school for the deaf. With her father’s political endorsement and Jeanie’s articulate and impassioned pleas the General Assembly passed the necessary bill.
Concerned that Jeanie’s voice did not sound entirely normal, Mary Ann Lippitt arranged for her to take private voice lessons in Boston. She studied with a young teacher of vocal physiology who “always arrived for her lesson with a curious box under his arm, about the size and shape of a carpenter’s box.” Jeanie worked for several months with the young instructor, before he finally begged off of his teaching responsibilities to devote his energies to his invention—an apparatus housed in the “curious box.” Jeanie’s teacher was the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell.
In later years, Jeanie Lippitt Weeden recounted the story of Alexander Graham Bell, her voice lessons, and the invention of the telephone with pride, remembering her experience waiting on the stage of the Providence Theatre as a thrilling moment in her life. Jeanie lived up to her mother’s expectations that she would be able to succeed in life, devoting herself to her family and involving herself in a busy Rhode Island social life.