Find could end 350-year science dispute.

The chance discovery of an antique notebook could have solved the 350-year-old British scientific mystery of who first taught a boy born deaf to speak?

Alexander Popham the first person born deaf to be taugt to speak.

Alexander Popham was born deaf in 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 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.

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

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.............. He convinced a lot of people that he was successful." However, when Mr Holder took 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."

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."

The notebook Alex was taugt sentences

"We have evidence from Alexander's descendants that this instruction was successful. It helps solve one of the grand disputes of the Royal Society, and is quite unique. Strong stuff!"

Dr Beeley said he had no doubts that the notebook was genuine.... "I know John Wallis's hand and style and can say without any doubt that I am certain it is genuine."

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

Edited report by J. Elliott, BBC Jul 25 2008.

Douglas Bain
Toronto, Canada

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