Braille Monitor                                                   March 2010

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Featured Book from the Jacobus tenBroek Library
Poems by Thomas Blacklock, Edinburgh 1793

by Ed Morman

In this woodcut two blind students of the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, the Parisian school with which Louis Braille was associated, are depicted operating a printing press. Printing was one of the professions blind people in France were often trained in during the early nineteenth century.From the Editor: With some regularity we plan to spotlight books in the tenBroek Library. Here is librarian Ed Morman's description of a recent acquisition:

In the last issue we promised a future note about the oldest book in our collection. Here it is–a 217-year-old book of poems by a blind writer with whom most of us are unfamiliar. Monitor readers might wonder why the tenBroek Library owns an obscure book of poems and what it has to do with blindness. We therefore quote from the title page: "Poems by the late Reverend Dr. Thomas Blacklock; together withAn Essay on the Education of the Blind.' To which is prefixed a new account of the life and writing of the author."

The Blacklock profile tells us that he was born in 1721 in Dumfries, Scotland, to a middle class family. He lost his sight to smallpox while still an infant and depended on sighted readers for what turned out to be a relatively good education. After his father died in 1740, he had the good fortune to connect with some eminent fellow Scots and enrolled in the divinity school at the University of Edinburgh. Some years later he became a licensed preacher of the gospel to a congregation in Dumfries, and he married the daughter of a local surgeon. Through all this he wrote poems. He continued to do so after relocating to Edinburgh, where he operated a school and socialized with some of the great minds of the Scottish Enlightenment, before dying in 1791.

The account of Blacklock’s life, although written in sometimes painfully discursive eighteenth-century style, provides an excellent view of the way a blind achiever was viewed at that time. In it we also learn that Blacklock wrote the article on blindness for the 1783 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In the Encyclopaedia he advised as follows:

Parents and relations ought never be too ready in offering their assistance to the blind...or in any acquisition which they can procure for themselves, whether they are prompted by amusement or necessity. Let a blind boy be permitted to walk through the neighbourhood without a guide, not only though he should run some hazard, but even though he should suffer some pain.

Two hundred years ago some blind people already understood what was to become the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. Thomas Blacklock was a fascinating character. More than this, he translated into English the Essay on the Education of the Blind by Valentin Haüy, a landmark work in the history of blindness and blind people. Haüy, of course, was the sighted philanthropist who founded the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, the school that Louis Braille was to attend a few decades later. Blacklock’s translation of Haüy’s essay is included in this volume, which makes it the earliest English version of a publication that was ultimately to lead to true literacy for the blind.

The Blacklock book has been digitized by Google books and is available free at <>. We have checked and are sorry to report that this publication is not posted in an accessible format.


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