Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Edith Mansford Fitzgerald (29 August 1877–26 June 1940), educator of the deaf, was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Her parents, Joseph P. Fitzgerald and Jennie Mansford Fitzgerald, died before she reached the age of two, and she lived with extended family thereafter. Born with a congenital hearing impairment that by her teen years had degenerated into total deafness, Fitzgerald later stated that she had learned to read lips as a child. After undergoing treatment at about age twelve, she could hear some sounds, but not speech, and she struggled with learning language and developing vocabulary. These early experiences with sound and language acquisition proved instrumental in her later career and scholarship.

Fitzgerald attended schools for hearing children until she entered the Illinois School for the Deaf to learn the rudiments of American Sign Language. She undertook advanced studies at Gallaudet College (later Gallaudet University), in Washington, D.C., and graduated as valedictorian with a B.A. in 1903. Fitzgerald began teaching in Delavan, Wisconsin, at the state school for the deaf. While there she came to believe in the importance of using sign language and manual spelling in addition to lip reading in teaching the English language to deaf children. By 1921 Fitzgerald had secured a position at the state school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but she soon transferred to a school in Arkansas. In 1924 she began teaching at the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind, in Staunton. There, Fitzgerald moved from the classroom into administration and served as the assistant supervising principal.

Fitzgerald's experience as a deaf person and as an educator of deaf children helped her to shape a new system for teaching deaf students. While at the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind, Fitzgerald transformed her theories into concrete methods, which resulted in the publication of her groundbreaking book, Straight Language for the Deaf: A System of Instruction for Deaf Children (1926). First published locally, the book went through numerous editions, including one issued in 1980. She named her method the Fitzgerald Key, and its pedagogical importance lay in the acknowledgment that deaf children needed to develop cognitive skills alongside language acquisition. Fitzgerald advocated an innovative approach that focused on the sequence of words and sentences. Her goal was to enable deaf students to understand sentence structure and then to be able to generate meaningful sentences of their own. Although the Fitzgerald Key was long widely accepted by deaf educators, new and different techniques later overshadowed it. Still, Fitzgerald received acknowledgment as a pioneer and leader in the development of methods for deaf education, and Gallaudet awarded her an honorary M.A. in 1936.

During the 1931–1932 school year, Fitzgerald lectured at the Illinois School for the Deaf. After nearly ten years in Virginia, in 1933 she moved to Cave Spring, Floyd County, Georgia, where she introduced her straight language system to the faculty at the state school for the deaf. The following year she went to Austin, Texas, and shared her system with educators there. Fitzgerald spent about three years in Texas, during which time she also conducted classes at summer schools around the country, including Gallaudet (1936), Columbia University (1937), and the Michigan State Normal College (1939). She demonstrated her Key method at biennial meetings of the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf in 1927, 1933, and 1937.

Fitzgerald settled in Oak Park, Illinois, about 1937, although she returned to Cave Spring briefly in 1938. She collaborated with another teacher at the Georgia facility to write several pamphlets on topics related to deaf education, including one on nature studies and one on using her straight language method in teaching mathematics. Having been ill for several months, Edith Mansford Fitzgerald died in Oak Park on 26 June 1940. Illinois death records indicate she was buried in Forest Home Cemetery in nearby Forest Park, Illinois.

Sources Consulted:
Biographies in New York School for the Deaf Fanwood Journal 5 (Feb. 1937): 14, and William M. Simpson, "Edith Fitzgerald, 1877–1940: Originator of the Straight Language System" (unpublished seminar paper, 1963), Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives, Washington, D.C.; Alumni Cards, Gallaudet University; publications include Fitzgerald, "Echoes of the Morganton Convention," American Annals of the Deaf 51 (1906): 165–171, "Manual Spelling and English," ibid. 57 (1912): 197–203, Signs and Pure Oralism (n.d.), and with Marie Sewell Kennard, Course of Study for Primary Department, Georgia School for the Deaf (1939), Straight Language Discusses Arithmetic (1939), Suggestions for Mental Development (1939), and Nature Study (1941); Silent Worker 18 (1906): 118; Edith M. Buell, "A Comparison of the 'Barry Five Slate System' and the 'Fitzgerald Key,'" Volta Review 33 (Jan. 1931): 5–19; Jack R. Gannon, Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America (1981), 29, 170, 222; Mabs Holcomb and Sharon Wood, Deaf Women: A Parade through the Decades (1989), 84 (portrait); Illinois, Deaths and Stillbirths Index, 1916–1947; obituaries in Georgia School for the Deaf School Helper 41 (Oct. 1940): 7, 12 (with death date of 26 June 1940), Illinois School for the Deaf Illinois Advance 71 (Dec. 1940): 6, and Report of the Proceedings of the … Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf, … June 23 to 27, 1941, 77th Cong., 2d sess., 1942, Senate Doc. 246, serial 10671, 421 (with incorrect death date of 25 June 1940); memorial in Volta Review 42 (Aug. 1940): 483–484.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Julie L. Lautenschlager.

How to cite this page:
Julie L. Lautenschlager,"Edith Mansford Fitzgerald (1877–1940)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2016 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Fitzgerald_Edith_Mansford, accessed [today's date]).

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