Louis Braille said: “God was pleased to hold before my eyes the dazzling splendours of eternal hope. After that, doesn’t it seem that nothing could keep me bound to the earth?”
He gazed in fascination at his father’s hands, which were producing all sorts of beautiful shapes and objects. He didn’t know what his father had in mind for his future, he just wanted, with the innocent simplicity of a three-year-old, to make beautiful things like his father.
With his eyes on the floor, he found a piece of leather large enough to be the focus of his attention. Then Louis began to search with his eyes for a knife with which to cut it. His sharp cry broke the monotony of the usual sounds in his father’s workshop. The knife had ricocheted off the tanned leather and into the young craftsman’s right eye.
Moments later, as he rushed through the village streets with Louis in his arms, Simon-René could not contain his despair and guilt. He had lost sight of his son for only a few moments. If only he could turn back the clock a few dozen seconds… He shook his head and the tears on his cheeks fell to the ground.
He increased his pace, determined to do everything humanly possible to save Louis’ eye. He reached the house of the old woman who was quick to offer healing to all who came to her. He watched as the woman took a small bottle from her cupboard and put something on the child’s eyes. If such a bottle existed, there must be a good remedy for Louis in it, Simon thought.
Simon-René Braille, Louis’s father, was wrong. The water-lily extract had probably done the little boy more harm than good. Soon his left eye became inflamed as well. The cornea of the right eye became opaque, while the left eye retained a few specks of blue of the large eyes of the little boy with curly blond hair.
“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” (Hellen Keller)
Little Louis’s tragedy seemed foretold from the moment he was born. He was so small and helpless that he could barely feed at his mother’s breast. His parents had christened him the day after his birth for fear he would die. Louis had survived, and his parents’ hearts were especially attached to him because of the intense emotions they had been through. For them, he had become “little Benjamin.” He was their beloved youngest, after the biblical model of the family of the patriarch Jacob.
But after only three years, the tragedy that had eluded him at birth demanded a cruel retribution. By the age of five, Louis was completely blind and seemed condemned to the miserable life reserved for the blind in the French villages of the early 19th century. However, Louis’s parents refused to accept such a fate. They had a different vision. They wanted their boy to go to school and have a chance at a normal life. So from an early age they helped Louis learn the letters of the alphabet, carved in wood so that his fingers could feel the difference between them.
At the time, people did not look kindly on those with various disabilities. There was always a suspicion that there was something evil about them, that they were deaf, mute or blind for a reason. Louis’s intelligence and boundless curiosity had to overcome prejudice to be noticed. Fortunately, a new priest arrived in the village.
Father Jacques Palluy was an educated former monk who quickly recognised the potential of the little Braille boy. Under the shade of the trees near the church, or in the parish house on bad weather days, Father Jacques introduced Louis to the fascinating world of knowledge. That wonderful year spent with the priest planted in his heart the desire to show love, kindness and humility to all people.
At the age of seven, he went to the village school. Another child took him by the hand to school and back home. After three miserable years of poverty and war, he was given a chance. His parents seized it, overcoming their pain at the prospect of an empty nest, and sent Louis to the only school for the blind in Paris.
The old building on Rue Saint-Victor was more than 200 years old and filthy, but it was the best option for Louis. The school’s founder, Valentin Haüy, was a scholar who spoke ten languages and had been King Louis XIV’s translator.
Louis proved to be a brilliant student in all subjects in Paris. He also discovered a passion for music and became such an accomplished pianist and organist that at 16 he was offered the paid position of organist at the church near the school. For the rest of his life, he would work as an organist in several churches in Paris. His spirit of self-sacrifice was also developing, as shown when he once gave up his job as organist of a church in favour of another blind man who needed it more than he did.
When Charles Barbier’s tactile writing system, invented to enable Napoleon’s soldiers to read orders in the dark, was introduced into schools, Louis felt he could create a better system. From then on, he devoted every spare moment to his special project, sometimes working late into the night.
He was only 15 when he completed his own alphabet for the blind, which he later perfected and which is now known as the Braille alphabet. Because Louis was passionate about music, he adapted his system of raised dots to transcribe sheet music. The results of his research and the new alphabet were published in 1829.
Portrait of Louis Braille
At the age of 19, Braille became a teacher’s assistant at the school where he had been a pupil, and after five years was given a full teaching post. He taught grammar, spelling, reading, geography, history, arithmetic, and algebra.
He was such a popular teacher that the pupils “competed among themselves, not only to be equal to or better than each other, but to make a sincere and continuous effort to please their teacher, whom they loved as a respected superior, and a wise and enlightened friend overflowing with good advice.” This was despite the fact that Louis was known for his stern and prompt disciplining of misbehaving pupils. He was resolute, principled, persevering, a perfectionist, and equally contemptuous of eccentricity or pretence.
Louis Braille did not seek fame. He never hesitated to say how much he owed to Charles Barbier and his invention, which inspired him to develop his own alphabet. And he continued to do so even after Barbier began to fight against the Braille alphabet in an attempt to impose his own invention as the official tool for teaching the blind.
A blind man who loved light
The infamous disease of 19th century Europe, tuberculosis, ended Louis’s life prematurely. His illness was probably caused by the terrible insalubrity of the Paris school where he had spent 24 of his 43 years as a student and then a teacher. He died two years before the Braille alphabet was officially recognised and adopted in France.
Over time, the unique contribution of this modest and selfless genius became so influential that, 100 years after his death, the French government acknowledged that Louis Braille had rightly earned a place in the French Pantheon. To date, only 74 other notable French personalities are buried there.
Although there was no news of his death in French newspapers in 1852, a century later dignitaries from around the world came to Paris to pay their respects. Hellen Keller, the blind and deaf American writer, gave a powerful speech in which she said: “In our way, we, the blind, are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg.”
On 15 December 1851, feeling that his life was coming to an end, Louis called a Catholic priest to administer the sacraments to him. The next day, Louis felt better, which led him to confess to his friend Hippolyte Coltat: “Yesterday was one of the most beautiful and greatest days of my life. When you have experienced that, you understand all the majesty and power of religion… I am convinced that my mission on earth has been accomplished… It is true, I asked God to carry me away from the world—but I felt I did not ask very strongly.”
Just before he died, he added: “God was pleased to hold before my eyes the dazzling splendours of eternal hope. After that, doesn’t it seem that nothing could keep me bound to the earth?”
In his will, Braille was careful to mention the forgiveness of all debts owed to him by others, provided a life pension for his mother, benefits for other family members, and donated the rest of his savings to charity and the Catholic Church.
When he died, his face bore the marks of long suffering. But, as Hyppolite recalled, not even a lifetime of suffering could erase the pleasant smile that always lit up his face.