Who Was Ferdinand Berthier?

Robert Traynor
July 30, 2023

France played a significant role in the early days of deaf education. A while back, Hearing International delved into the National Institute for the Deaf in Paris, which was established and led by Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Epée (1712-1789). De l’Epée was a pioneer in developing the education of the deaf as we understand it today. He introduced sign language from the streets of Paris into the classroom, founding the Paris Institute. This time, Hearing International wants to highlight the contributions of another French figure, Ferdinand Berthier (1803-1886). Berthier held various prestigious positions, including President of the Société Centrale des Sourds-Muets, Dean of the Royal Deaf Institute of Paris, and membership in the Historical Institute of France.

Ferdinand Berthier entered the National Institute for the Deaf in 1811 when he was just an 8-year-old who couldn’t hear or speak. At that time, the school was under the direction of Abbé Roch-Ambroise Sicard (1742-1822), a hearing and speaking educator who succeeded Abbé de l’Epée as France’s leading figure in deaf education since the French Revolution. During Berthier’s formative years, the school’s staff included two teaching assistants who, like him, were deaf and mute—Jean Massieu (1772-1846) and Laurent Clerc (1985-1869).

Also part of the team was Sicard’s godson and namesake, Roch-Ambroise-Auguste Bébian (1789-1839), who could hear and speak. Sicard, Massieu, Clerc, and Bébian all held significant places in the history of deaf education and played pivotal roles in Berthier’s early life. Together, they influenced his decision to become a faculty member at the National Institute for the Deaf and encouraged his involvement in advocating for the French deaf community’s rights, particularly in preserving deaf language and culture.

In his advocacy for deaf language and culture, all four of his mentors found their place in the numerous biographies written about Ferdinand Berthier.

Silent Banquets – A Tradition Is Established

In 1834, Ferdinand Berthier hosted the inaugural “silent banquet” in Paris, an event that would later gain international renown. These banquets were annual social gatherings of “deaf-mutes” who came together to celebrate the birthday of Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Epée. The first of these famous banquets took place on December 6, 1834, at a restaurant in the Place du Châtelet, a square located near the center of Paris. Berthier, determined to ensure the continuation of these banquets, established a committee of deaf individuals, which later evolved into the Société Centrale des Sourds-Muets (Deaf Mutes) in 1838. This organization became a strong advocate for the deaf in France, staunchly defending sign language and striving for equality between deaf and hearing individuals despite facing opposition from proponents of oralism.

Under the leadership of Berthier, the Société Centrale des Sourds-Muets wielded significant political influence on behalf of the deaf community throughout the mid-19th century. Although there is limited written documentation of the first banquets, some records exist of the second banquet, which occurred on December 6, 1835, to commemorate de l’Epée’s 123rd birthday. The venue was a restaurant in the Place du Châtelet. These banquets continued, with the venue changing to Ladmiral’s on the Rue Sainte Marguerite in the Saint Germain neighborhood on the Left Bank of the Seine in 1837.

The legacy of the Société Centrale des Sourds-Muets, rooted in the Silent Banquets, endures as it continues to work toward its goals of serving as a central organization for education and advocating for the use of sign language in France. Although Abbé Charles Michel de l’Epée had passed away fifty years before the society’s founding, he is regarded as its father because of his pioneering efforts to give a voice to the deaf. Berthier, a deaf student and later a teacher at the National Institute for the Deaf, carried on l’Epée’s mission, dedicating his life to the society’s cause.

In 1880, Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet brought the tradition to America by organizing a similar banquet in New York. Today, silent banquets are still held regularly worldwide, carrying on the tradition established by Ferdinand Berthier and his companions in 1834.

Robert M. Traynor, Ed.D., is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager and author.  He has decades of experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. He serves as Adjunct Faculty in Audiology at the University of Florida, University of Northern Colorado, University of Colorado and The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.


**this piece has been updated for clarity. It originally published on July 30, 2013

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