Louis Braille

  • Presented: 
    2012
  • Recognition: 
    ASCRS Ophthalmology Hall of Fame

(1809-1852)

Louis Braille was born in 1809, at Coupvray, near Paris, France. At age three, he developed an infection that blinded both eyes by the time he was four. Despite his disability, Braille continued to attend school for two more years, but found learning only by listening to be difficult. He had to leave school when the curriculum required learning to read and write. At age 10 Braille got a scholarship to the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris (Institution Royale des Juenes Aveugles). As in his previous school, teachers relied on verbal instruction. The institute’s library had but 14 large books with raised letters, but Braille found them difficult to read.

In 1821, Charles Barbier, a former soldier, visited the Institute and shared his night writing code with Braille, who was then 12 years of age. The system used 12 raised dots arranged in cells or groups. Soldiers could “read” messages by passing a finger over them, thus avoiding the need for position-revealing light or speech.

Three years later, Braille had simplified Barbier's 12-dot system into cells using 6 dots per cell to represent letters and numbers.  Braille shared his system with officials at the Royal Institute, but was not taken seriously. Nevertheless, he persisted and secretly taught his method to students at the institute when he became an assistant teacher, and later when he was accepted for a full-time teaching position.

Over time Braille won limited support of the Institute’s leadership, and in 1829 the Institute published Braille's book explaining his system, titled Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them. In 1834, he made the last major modifications to his braille system, which remains fundamentally the same today. In 1837, he completed the translation of a French history textbook. In 1839, he introduced Decapoint, a system of dot coding that can be written and read by blind or sighted people. Word of Braille's language spread slowly among the sighted, and not a single newspaper in France published an obituary when he died in 1852. Even at the Royal Institution braille was not taught until after his death. The braille system began to spread worldwide in 1868 when a British group, now known as the Royal National Institute for the Blind, promoted braille’s acceptance. Eventually braille swept the world and brought literacy to the blind in every language.

Marking the centennial of Braille’s death in 1952, the French government proposed relocating his grave from his home town of Coupvray to The Pantheon in Paris, where many of France's most important historical figures are interred. Braille, however, had requested that he be buried in Coupvray, and the town's officials were reluctant to let his body be taken away. So an unusual compromise was struck. Most of Braille's earthly remains were entombed at The Pantheon, but his hands remain buried at the Church Cemetery in Coupvray.