4 Jan 1809 – 6 Jan 1852
Louis Braille was blinded in one eye in a childhood accident. Blindness in his other eye quickly followed. He was fortunate to live in the village of Coupvray, only about 40 km from Paris, and so was eventually able, about age 10, to attend a school there for the blind.
A curious note: the school was founded by Valentin Hauy. That combination of name and era sets off the memory bell for me, as a mineralogist. It turns out that Valentin Hauy, the philanthropist and political activist, was the brother of Rene Just Hauy, one of the real founders of mineralogy. (As in so many things, Nicolaus Steno was a century ahead of his time in proposing the law of constant interfacial angles. It was not until the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth century that chemistry and geology caught up to this insight and began to make further progress.)
V. Hauy had devised a way to help blind people read by means of creating raised letters whose outlines could be felt, but it was a difficult system. Braille, who was a brilliant student and put to work as a teacher already at 15, learned a new system from Charles Barbier, which had the disadvantage of being a syllabary rather than an alphabet. However, it had the advantage of relying on easily distinguished (and written, with simple equipment) raised dots rather than whole letters. Braille assembled his own system. He tightened up Barbier’s 12 dots to bundles of 6, and made the system an alphabet. It was first introduced to the world in 1829, when Braille was only 20. The system only took off slowly, and was widely accepted around the world only after Braille’s untimely death.
Louis Braille suffered from bleeding from the late 1830s on. He relinquished most of his teaching duties by 1840, but retained a lifelong passion for music right up until his death. He was a frequent organist at parishes in Paris. In early December 1851, he began hemorrhaging, and a series of further hemorrhages led to his death the following month. He had been 43 for two days.
I cannot help but be amazed by the life of someone like Braille, who suffered such a debilitating injury at a time when his society was just barely beginning to provide some sort of help, hope, and future for the blind. He jumped on his chance with both feet and made the absolute most of it.
Louis, you gave light to your fellows, despite the darkness you yourself had to endure. It’s hard to believe that you left this life on the feast of Epiphany, when we remember the Light coming into the world, entirely by coincidence. Pray for me. I long for a share of the spirit that animated you.