Dr. Abraham Nemeth: The Louis Braille of Mathematics Dies at Age 94
In a time when college students can receive most of their textbooks in electronic formats, mentors are available to students who are blind or who have low vision, and college students enter fields of study across nearly all disciplines, it is difficult to imagine that not long ago, none of these accommodations were possible. Dr. Abraham Nemeth, whose name is as familiar as that of Louis Braille to any braille-reading student of science or mathematics, had no such advantages and yet he excelled as a professor of mathematics, a Hebrew scholar, a musician, and a charismatic teller of jokes and tales.
On October 2, just two weeks shy of his 95th birthday, Dr. Abraham Nemeth, inventor of the braille mathematics code that has carried his name since its adoption in 1951, died peacefully in his Southfield, Michigan apartment.
Born to Jewish immigrant parents in New York's Lower East Side in 1918, Nemeth grew up at a time when blind children were taught to knit, weave baskets, and cane chairs. At the time it was thought that manual labor was the only way blind people could escape a life of begging on the streets.
Nemeth's immigrant parents didn't know or care about those expectations, raising their son (and his blind sister) to be independent and motivated.
He rode his tricycle up and down Stanton Street, went to the grocery for his mother at the age of six, and learned from his father to pay attention to the sun and the direction of cars to determine whether he was walking east or west on a given street. He attended public schools, where he learned to read and write braille (and to speak English along with all the other children whose families spoke Yiddish at home).
In adolescence, he developed a passion for mathematics. Experts told him that mathematics was an unwise pursuit for a blind man, however, so he earned a bachelor's degree in psychology at Brooklyn College in 1940. When there were no jobs, the same experts encouraged him to get a master's degree in psychology as well, which he earned from Columbia University in 1942.
Still, there were no jobs, and Nemeth finally found employment at the American Foundation for the Blind in 1943. There, the brilliant young man (who played piano in clubs around Brooklyn and took mathematics classes on every free evening for fun) worked at stitching pillowcases, loading talking book records onto trucks, and counting phonograph needles into envelopes.
He also made friends with such luminaries as Alexander Scourby and was invited to join a research committee, comprised of bright blind New Yorkers who solved simple technical issues for homemakers and workers in other fields. Through that committee, he met Clifford Witcher, another exceptional blind man of the era, who worked for AFB and held a PhD in Physics. Familiar with Abe's passion for mathematics, Witcher came to Abe one day, desperate for a table of integrals.
"I have one," Abe told him, "but it's written in my own private code. You wouldn't be able to read it."
Witcher convinced Abe to teach him the private code, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Cliff Witcher happened to be a member of the Joint Uniform Braille Committee (the 1950s equivalent of the Braille Authority of North America.) He invited Abe to present his code for braille mathematics notation to that committee. Abe gave his report one morning in 1951 and in the afternoon his code, called then and forever thereafter the Nemeth code, was unanimously adopted.
He volunteered to tutor returning World War II veterans struggling with calculus at Brooklyn College and that generosity led to a breakthrough in pursuing his dream. As he circled the room, writing on chalkboards, patiently explaining each step of each equation, he was unaware that a professor was observing him. When a teacher in the math department became ill, Abe received a telegram one Friday evening that changed his life: he was asked to serve as a replacement.
Eventually, his wife, Florence, asked him: "Wouldn't you rather be an unemployed mathematician than an unemployed psychologist?" With that question, Abe quit his day job at AFB, Florence went to work, and Abe enrolled in a doctoral program in mathematics at Columbia University.
Four years and one hundred employment letters later, he was offered a job teaching in the mathematics department at the University of Detroit.
There, he taught every graduate and undergraduate course in mathematics and founded the computer science department in the 1960s. He was invited to speak and teach in England and Russia and around the United States.
In 1985, he retired from teaching, but his retirement was by no means a time of relaxation. He became thoroughly involved in advocacy, chairing the Michigan Commission for the Blind and becoming active in the National Federation of the Blind. His Jewish faith was an integral part of his life (indeed, he and his father together proofread the first Hebrew Bible produced in braille), and in his retirement he took on the gigantic task of reorganizing Jewish prayers under the direction of JBI International (formerly Jewish Braille Institute) in New York. The intent of the project was to arrange prayers needed for any given service in such a way that a blind worshiper need take only one braille volume to synagogue rather than a wagon load of nineteen! Carefully arranging English alongside Hebrew for each prayer, checking and double checking with a fellow scholar as well as relatives, he was meticulous and a perfectionist in this as in every other task he accepted.
A gifted and self-taught musician, Abe Nemeth picked up extra cash playing in clubs when he was young, and continued giving weekly concerts in his retirement community until shortly before his death.
His apartment was filled with the numerous honors and awards he received for his work over the years, among them the Migel Award from AFB (of which he was particularly proud) and his bust of Louis Braille (presented to him by the American Printing House for the Blind).
Abe Nemeth was a consummate storyteller, having a joke, a tale, or a limerick for every imaginable occasion. He loved telling the true story that his obituary had been published twice! First, in 1984, when a Jewish magazine for the blind mistook a death notice that read "A. Nemeth" as referring to Abe, rather than his brother, Aaron. In 2000, the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, the professional and educational journal published by AFB, made a similar mistake upon the death of Abe's wife, Edna.
"The news of my demise has been greatly exaggerated," he quipped to me in recalling those two premature obituaries. It tickled him to say such things. And it tickles me to remember him saying such things.
Abraham Nemeth traveled throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan as a young man, using subways, buses, and his own two feet, memorizing routes and never hesitating to take any part-time teaching job or piano gig. He did it without a long white cane; he simply used what he had available to him: his intelligence and common sense and the work ethic and independent spirit instilled in him by his parents.
Blind physicists and engineers and math teachers and software designers everywhere thank Dr. Nemeth and say his name daily as they run fingers across lines of complexity written in Nemeth code. Certainly, as an inventor and mathematician he is remembered and mourned around the world. For those who were privileged to know him, he will also be missed as a warm, funny, and generous man who just happened to be blind and whose life is an example of what can be accomplished with the right blend of faith and intelligence in one truly treasured human being.
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