For inventing the first Braille code of mathematics, blind scientist Abe Nemeth has earned the title "Einstein of the sightless"
he made 2 + 2 =
by Richard Match
Over a hundred years ago, Louis Braille, a Frenchman, invented the written alphabet of the blind. The American Louis Braille of today is a trim young man with a Madison Avenue haircut hwo plays a cool jazz piano, teaches higher mathematics at the University of Detroit–and is also blind himself.
His name is Abraham Nemeth, and his "Nemeth Code of Braille Mathematics" has made the world’s technical and scientific learning available to thouosands of sightless high school and college students. This at a moment when our survival may rest on science and mathematics.
Besides its revolutionary impact on higher mathematics, Abe Nemeth’s Code is helping blind gradeschool youngsters with their arithmetic, too. For dedicated sighted volunteers like the Braille Group of the Sisterhood of Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, New York, and scores of similar church, synagogue and women’s club groups across the country are transcribing ordinary printed textbooks into Braille as part of local programs to "integrate" blind school children into regular public-school classes with sighted children.
Blind since he was six weeks old, Abe Nemeth breezed through special classes for the blind in New York City. Breezed, that is, through every subject except one: arithmetic.
He picked up fluent French from his teachers and Hebrew from his grandfather–by economic circumstance a Kosher butcher on the lower East Side, but in soul and mien an Old Testament patriarch, steeped in the ancient faith, who addressed his God humbly each Sabbath day with a small blind boy at his side.
"Fooling around the piano" in lighter moments, the small boy also taught himself how to play Wit of Braille music books from the library. (Recently, he compiled and published the standard American "dictionary" of Braille music symbols.)
With an IQ of 148, "genius" level, Abe Nemeth could learn just about anything he put his mind to. But the thing he wanted more than anything was to go to college and major in advanced mathematics. And that, well-meaning guidance counselors advised him, was, for a blind man, an "unattainable" goal.
Accepting the "sensible" alternative, Nemeth went through college to an M.A. in psychology at Columbia University. Then he bumped into a stone wall. There were no jobs for blind psychologists. With two degrees in his pocket, he took a wartime job stitching pillowcases.
In another part of Brooklyn, fate seemed to be dealing harshly, with a pretty blind girl named Florence Weissman. Through a friend at the New York Guild for the Jewish Blind, Abe and Florence met. They were married 18 months later and moved into their own third-story walkup apartment, which Abe, an accomplished do-it-yourself carpenter, promptly fitted with new kitchen cabinets.
Although still "legally blind," Florence has since gradually regained partial vision in one eye, enough to read mathematical journals into her husband’s tape recorder, help keep his class records straight, and grade student papers.
Abe Nemeth had two loves now, his wife and mathematics, but professional employment agencies continued to receive his advances coldly.
"I’d rather be an unemployed blind mathematician than an unemployed blind psychologist," he told himself, and went back to Brooklyn College at night as a mathematics undergraduate.
"If you’re ever going to become a college professor yourself," his bride said logically, "you’ll have to learn how to write."
Up to then, the only forms of written communication Nemeth knew were typing and raised-dot Braille, punched out with a pointed stylus. Florence worked with him as
a first-grade teacher does with a six-year-old, helping his fingers learn to make unseen lines of ink on paper and chalk on a blackboard.
Every college in the country automatically exempted blind students from "required" math and laboratory science courses. Even special schools for the blind went only as far as high school algebra. Beyond that, there were no Braille books of mathematics, no way of writing them even if anybody wanted to.
In order to wrestle with college mathematics at all, Nemeth. had to invent a way of expressing unbelievably complicated mathematical symbols and concepts in Braille as he went along. Advanced mathematics relies not only on numbers, but on letters of the English alphabet, the Greek alphabet and others. Hundreds of symbols are needed.
Nemeth first figured out ways to make the 63 available Braille symbols do triple and quadruple duty. Then he converted every problem into uniform little dots evenly, spaced along a level line–everything from simple fractions and "plus" and "minus" signs to cube roots and logarithm tables.
For example, in the Nemeth Code, 2+2=4 would be written as:
For a physics lab course, Abe came to class with an armful of special instruments "all geared to be read by touch or sound." He had a Braille micrometer, for instance, and a voltmeter that registered by means of a buzzer instead of a dial.
His favorite, though, was tbe Braille slide rule which he invented with a friend at the American Foundation for the Blind, where he was working days now as an office clerk.
The big break came when a regular math instructor fell ill suddenly and the deputy department head. Associate Professor J. M. Wolfe, calmly asked Nerneth to fill in for the semester.
That term Abe taught two nights a week, attended classes as a student two nights more. Weekdays he worked at his office job, and on Saturday nights he played the piano for a dance band in a distant part of the borough.
When he had to re-enroll as a fulltime day student at Columbia in order to complete his math studies, Florence paid his way through graduate school by going to work as a dictaphone typist. And the two of them kept the budget in balance by selling life insurance–successfully–in their spare time.
As for his first teaching assignment, Nemeth polished off the job so lovingly that references got him two other temporary substituteteaching appointments, the second at a Catholic girls’ school. Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart was in suburban Westchester. Abe still lived in Brooklyn. Between the two lay a two-hour train ride, involving subway changes, a commuter railroad, and a short bus hop.
The Sunday before classes began, c Nemeth made a "dry run" with a sighted companion, wandering all over Grand Central Station to map the track locations of bodh levels in his mind. Thereafter, he made the rush-hour safari twice a day, solo, and never missed a class, although he admits that the nuns worried about him during snowstorms.
He carries a collapsible white cane in his briefcase, but seldom bothers to use it. Nor has he ever used a guide dog.
"I have a good sense of direction, I know where I want to go, and I have patience," he says matter-of-factly, adding that this philosophy applies to his way of life as well as to the daily chore of earning a living.
But not by bread alone does Abraham Nemeth make his way. Born into a dedicated Orthodox Jewish home, Nemeth as a boy soaked up Biblical and Talmudic lore by listening to his grandfather hour after hour. For of course there were no religious books either. It was not till 1950 that the Jewish Braille Institute of America, working with rabbinical groups abroad, completed the standard Hebrew-language edition of the Scriptures for blind readers. Abe Nemeth paid a debt of love to his grandfather’s memory by serving as proofreader for the world’s first Hebrew Braille Bible.
One day the mother of a blind youngster came to the Jewish Braille Institute, troubled. The boy, like all his sighted friends, was nearing the age of Bar Mitzvah, or confirmation. But sighted rabbis were stumped by the task of preparing a sightless boy for the confirmation ceremonies. Must this youngster be deprived of his religious heritage too?
"No," said Nemeth. He rolled up his sleeves, prepared Hebrew-language Braille transcripts of the necessary instructional material, sweated out months on end with the boy. A year-and-a-half later, Nemeth sat in a hushed synagogue and heard his bright young pupil recite the Bar Mitzvah ritual in faultless Hebrew. He has since prepared several other blind boys for this most solemn religious occasion in a Jewish youngster’s life.
In 1950, the American Joint Uniform Braille Committee, consisting of ranking American and English educators of the blind, both sighted and sightless, listened to Nemeth explain his Code. A year later, a national conference adopted the Nemeth Code by acclamation, and since 1954, all math textbooks printed for the blind on this continent have been in Nemeth Code.
In 1955, the University of Detroit hired Nemeth to teach theoretical mathematics to sighted college students, something no other blind person had ever done. His schedule runs the gamut from a freshman math survey to differential calculus.
"Putting problems on the blackboard isn’t difficult," says Nemeth. "The first line of writing goes at the top of the board–level with the top of my head. The next line is at my eye level, the third at chin level, the one after that at chest level. You just work down." Elementary.
By dint of ingenuity, courage, and their unquenchable love for each other, Abe and Florence Nemeth have built a remarkably normal, happy marriage. But they are the first to admit it wouldn’t have been easy without wonderful sighted friends, old and new, who seem to appear magically whenever the situation requires them.
Nemeth will soon receive his Ph.D. in mathematics from Wayne State University; a key scientific doctorate earned by fewer than 250 Americans each year. Now completing his Ph.D. thesis on the mathematics of "electronic brains," he operates a big I.B.M. digital cornputer regularly, in the course of an original investigative project which, he admits, is "right up there on the frontier" of basic research.
In a world that pushes most of us into compromises and second choices, Abraham Neraeth, who is doing the only work he ever wanted to, considers himself "a fortunate man."
This article originally appeared in Coronet, July, 1958.