Page last updated at 00:42 GMT, Saturday, 26 July 2008 01:42 UK

Find could end 350-year science dispute

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

The infant Alexander Popham
Alexander was the first person born deaf to be taught to speak
Who first taught a boy born deaf to speak?

The chance discovery of an antique notebook could have solved the 350-year-old British scientific mystery.

Alexander Popham was born deaf in around 1650 but his mother, determined to communicate with her son, hired two eminent scientists, John Wallis and William Holder, to teach him to speak.

Both claimed success in what became a celebrated scientific controversy.

Exciting discovery

The story was lent additional interest because the boy was the grandson of the notorious Judge Popham, who sentenced both Mary Queen of Scots and Guy Fawkes to death.

Now a yellowing, leather-bound notebook, found in a butler's cupboard in Littlecote House, Berkshire, a former home of the Pophams, appears to some experts to indicate that the methods of Mr Wallis were the key.

He was a renowned mathematician, deciphered enemy codes for Cromwell during the English Civil War and was also an expert linguist.

Up until now we have not been in a position to assess the validity of either claim
Philip Beeley

Philip Beeley, researcher in the faculty of linguistics and philology at the University of Oxford, and a world expert on John Wallis, said he had been fascinated by the book, which shows how Mr Wallis taught his charge.

"William Holder claimed to have been successful, but when you go into the method that he used, it was quite outlandish.

A page from the notebook
The diagrams in the notebook show how to position the tongue

"He investigated the structure of the ear and worked on the hypothesis that the problem was the ear drum itself that had become relaxed.

"He felt that only when it was tight could it facilitate hearing and he set about an experiment beating a loud drum.

"Holder found that when he beat a loud drum near Alexander, he could hear other sounds, including people calling his name.

"He convinced a lot of people that he was successful."


When Mr Holder was called away to take up another post, Mr Wallis took over.

"We have not known an awful lot about the approach John Wallis took," said Mr Beeley.

"All we do know is that he wrote a little bit about it and later on it became the topic of a grand dispute within the Royal Society, with claim and counter-claim.

"Up until now we have not been in a position to assess the validity of either claim.

A page from Alexander's notebook
Alexander was taught sentences

"This find is potentially able to do this for us."

Mr Wallis's approach was to start by looking at how the tongue, palate and lips looked when certain vowel sounds were made.

He drew diagrams and used them to show Alexander how to form sounds.

From there, Mr Wallis used the same method to help him form words.

Mr Beeley said: "He starts out with a modern technique showing him how to produce sounds, and then he moves on from that to basic language constructions, with nouns and conjunctions.

"Having looked at the notebook, I am fairly sure this is a book that would have been on the desk while John Wallis and Alexander Popham were sitting together.

"We have evidence from his descendants that this instruction was successful.

"It helps solve one of the grand disputes of the Royal Society, and is quite unique."

'Strong stuff'

Sentences learnt by Alexander and detailed in the notebook include "I have a knife in my hand" and "I have mony (sic) in my pocket" as well as "I have a hat, on my head" and "I have a band about my neck".

Dr Beeley said he had no doubts that the notebook was genuine.

"I have to admit that before I had the notebook in my hands I had my doubts," he said.

"There have of course been occasions when people have been deceived, but I was very happy to see the notebook.

It is about applying scientific method and whether you think Wallis was first or Holden was first doesn't really matter
Keith Moore
Royal Society
"And now I have no doubt. I know John Wallis's hand and style and can say without any doubt that I am certain it is genuine."

Keith Moore, head of library and archives at the Royal Society, said the notebook was a fantastic find.

"It adds historical detail and any manuscript of this period is interesting," he said.

"This is dated 1662 and right at the beginning of what we would call modern science.

"The Royal Society was founded in 1660 and this is an early example of the practical applications of scientific methods."

But he said it was unlikely to settle the dispute about who taught Alexander to speak, adding that the most important detail was the science itself.

"Holden virtually accused Wallis of stealing his ideas and that smacks of plagiarism in science. It is pretty strong stuff," he said.

"It does not matter whether it solves it - the Popham case was the beginning of a more scientific approach to therapy.

"They were thinking about language and grammar, about the physiology of how people spoke and that is the important thing really.

"It is about applying scientific method and whether you think Wallis was first or Holden was first doesn't really matter."

Dr Beeley hopes that the book is stored in a library like the Bodleian, but the hotel chain, Warner Leisure, which now owns Littlecote, is deciding whether to keep it on display in the house.

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