Braille Monitor                                                    January 2008

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The Blind Doctor:
The Jacob Bolotin Story

by Rosalind Perlman
(reviewed by Deborah Kendrick)

The front cover of The Blind DoctorFrom the Editor: Deborah Kendrick is a leader in the Ohio affiliate and a syndicated columnist. Here is her review of this biography of an extraordinary man and physician:

Give me an ordinary blind person who conducts his or her life in the ordinary ways--go to work, manage a home, ride a bike, or have a family--and I'll guarantee that at some point he or she has been called "amazing." So often, in fact, have most of us been told for the simplest of tasks, that we are amazing, remarkable, courageous, determined, and otherwise wonderful that such epithets spark more than a tad of boredom or derision.

The accomplishments detailed in The Blind Doctor: The Story of Jacob Bolotin, however, are not ordinary. In sum or as individual pieces, rather, they represent a life that easily warrants the above selection of adjectives as well as being truly inspirational and maybe even miraculous to boot.

Growing up in Chicago, Rosalind Perlman had heard about the blind doctor, known throughout her city and around the world. When she married Alfred Perlman, she learned much more. Alfred and his mother (Jacob Bolotin's sister) had lived with the renowned doctor for a significant part of Perlman's childhood and adolescence. To him the legendary blind doctor was an uncle, a father, a hero. It is thanks to the Perlmans that his story has finally been told and, in reading it, it is hard to know which is more remarkable: the life of Jacob Bolotin or the fact that it has been such hidden history for so long.

If you've ever wondered how blind people managed before there were talking computers or Braille notetakers or offices for students with disabilities, Dr. Bolotin's story will require that you stretch your imagination much, much further than, say, my own memories of schlepping a portable typewriter across campus to take an exam. Jacob Bolotin, who would become the first congenitally blind person to attend medical school and be a licensed physician in this country, was born in 1888. That means, in other words, that he was learning to read in the nineteenth century. It means that he lived in a time before we had programs to teach blind people cane travel, before we had tape recorders or Perkins Braillers or talking books. What he did have was a strong and loving family, a superb intellect, and a cache of perseverance rarely witnessed.

Bolotin's parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. Jacob was the seventh child in the family and the third of those seven to be born blind. He and his brother Fred were taken to the state school for the blind in Illinois (interestingly, no mention is made of any education for their blind sister). Perlman characterizes Bolotin as not only an excellent student, but one with extraordinarily heightened senses–reading Braille through three handkerchiefs, for example, and recognizing other people by smell. The real story begins, however, after his valedictorian speech and graduation from the school at age fourteen.

With his own improvised cane travel techniques, Bolotin traveled the network of streetcars throughout Chicago, selling first brushes, and later typewriters. At sixteen he was called into the president's office to be congratulated for being one of the best typewriter salesmen in the company.

Jacob Bolotin's journey to becoming a physician is laden with pathos, inspiration, drama, and a few serendipitous events that might well be called miracles. His inventive adaptations for constructing three-dimensional models of the body's complex systems and his ardent belief in his own ability could serve as inspiration for students today. He had to fight his way into medical school. Upon graduation he had to fight again to take the exam to become a licensed physician. He endured months in an office where no patients came.

His talents were proven during his internship at Frances Willard Hospital in Illinois. A young woman's illness was misdiagnosed by at least three other physicians–who thought it was psychologically based–when Jacob Bolotin examined her and immediately recognized a serious heart condition.
Perlman writes:

"When Jacob examined the girl, he was stunned to hear the distinct murmur of an obstructed heart valve. Could he be wrong? Slowly he ran his fingers over her chest. Her skin was sweaty and clammy. Again he pressed his ear to her heart and listened intently. There was no doubt. It was not simple neurasthenia, but the dull unmistakable murmur of mitral stenosis. Alarmed, he hurried to the office of his immediate supervisor, Dr. Maxmillian Kuznik, professor of clinical diagnosis."

His brilliance as a physician, however, was recognized by patients and other physicians long before he took his rightful place in the medical community. Even after working for months as a volunteer physician in a facility for tuberculosis patients, he was not hired by that institution. Patients loved him, and doctors frequently called upon him for consultation, but his blindness was repeatedly waved as an excuse for not paying him for his services.

Eventually, however, Dr. Jacob Bolotin grew to be a renowned heart and lung specialist, not only throughout Chicago, but in places around the world. When he addressed a medical convention as a favor to a friend, his talent for speaking also became legendary. Reading excerpts from his speeches is astonishing. The philosophy and sentiments are in complete accord with the words of leaders in the blindness movement almost a century later. Listen, for instance, to his comments as quoted in the Chicago Tribune, when that newspaper ran a sensational article about the blind man about to become a licensed physician:

"Well, is there anything so remarkable about it? Because a man has no eyes, is it any sign that he hasn't any brains? That is the trouble with the world and the blind man. All the blind man asks is fair play. Give him an equal chance without prejudice, and he generally manages to hold his own with his more fortunate colleagues."

Jacob Bolotin died in 1924, at the young age of thirty-six. He seems to have literally worked himself to death--maintaining such a rigorous schedule of seeing patients and giving speeches that his body wore out. Five thousand people came to his funeral--and yet, were it not for a loving nephew and his wife, Alfred and Rosalind Perlman, Dr. Bolotin's story might well have been lost to us all.

Rosalind Perlman is no literary maven. Nor is she a blindness maven. Little annoyances occur in the narrative that come to the attention of the savvy blind reader. There are references, for instance, to Jacob and his brother "groping" their way to class, Jacob "tapping" his way to his superior's office, and innumerable references to the appearance of his brown eyes. (Repeatedly the author tells us that, because his eyes are so normal, others believe he can see.)

But these are minor annoyances in the larger story, a remarkable story that everyone should read. Those of us who are blind--particularly when life's obstacles seem daunting--should read Jacob Bolotin's story and savor the gift that the Perlmans, who committed themselves to preserving and sharing this inspirational account--have given us.

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