by Deborah Kendrick
When I was in college, I once had to take an incomplete in an algebra course. The problem wasn’t my ability to comprehend math. Rather it was my inability to read and write the mathematical equations the course required. I’d had no textbooks in Braille in college, but this time I scrambled to find a Braille transcriber to put the book into Braille for me. At first I felt like a kindergartner as I sat with the friend who was going to tutor me. I could read literature at an easy four hundred words per minute, but this stuff was like Greek to me. It was, it turned out, not Greek, but the Nemeth code. I had heard of that code, heard of the famous blind man who had written it, but, little did I know at the time, that decades later I would be asked by the National Federation of the Blind’s president, Dr. Marc Maurer, to write the biography of the brilliant inventor who, by creating the Nemeth code, would enable countless blind people around the world to pursue passions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
I have spent many hours in the Southfield, Michigan, apartment of Dr. Abraham Nemeth in the last few years, listening to his stories, his memories, and his piano playing. October 2, 2013, exactly two weeks shy of his 95th birthday, the world lost a brilliant inventor, mathematician, musician, and devout follower of the Jewish faith. Those of us who are blind have lost one of the greatest treasures in our expansive family, and it is vital, not only that we remember him and his Braille system for science and mathematics, but that we know him for the warm, generous, and extraordinary man that he was.
When Abraham Nemeth was growing up, blind children were taught to weave baskets and cane chairs. The social expectation was that, if a blind man were to have any gainful activity beyond begging, it would be in menial tasks and manual labor. But Abraham Nemeth's Jewish immigrant parents either didn't know or care about those social expectations. His father walked with him in their New York tenement neighborhood, encouraging him to touch raised lettering on mailboxes to learn the shapes of printed letters and to note whether they were walking east or west as they chatted. His mother sent her blind six-year-old son to the grocer around the corner (who happened to be his grandfather), entrusting him to remember the bread, the butter, and the measure of sour cream. His grandfather spent hours with him in the temple, teaching him the lessons every boy would need one day for bar mitzvah. Each of them taught him that there was nothing he could not do.
Abraham went to school, learned to read and write Braille, and in his teens developed a passion for mathematics. As a student at Brooklyn College he was advised by an expert in blindness to pursue a degree in psychology. Mathematics, he was told, held no future for a blind man. When he couldn’t find a job as a psychologist after his 1940 graduation, he was advised to make himself more professionally appealing by earning a master’s degree in psychology. So in 1942 he graduated with that degree from Columbia University.
A self-taught musician, he picked up jobs playing piano in clubs around Brooklyn, and in 1944 he married Florence Weismann. Still unemployed, he took a job at the American Foundation for the Blind, where he stitched pillow cases, loaded boxes of talking book records onto trucks, and counted phonograph needles into envelopes. His passion for mathematics, however, never wavered. In his free time he took every math course offered by first Brooklyn College and then Columbia University, seeking relaxation in mathematics in the same way, as he would often put it, “that other guys enjoyed pinochle or a night of bowling.”
He volunteered to tutor returning soldiers in calculus after World War II, and it was this generosity that led to the first real break in pursuing his dream. As he wrote equations carefully on the chalkboard circling the room, patiently explaining each step of the process, he was unaware that another professor was observing him. One Friday night he received a telegram that would remain a milestone in memory throughout his life. A teacher in the mathematics department had become ill, and Abraham Nemeth was being asked to fill his place.
Meanwhile he continued seeking employment as a psychologist, but there were no more jobs for blind psychologists than there were for blind mathematicians. Finally his wife put the question to him: “Wouldn’t you rather be an unemployed mathematician than an unemployed psychologist?” With that he quit his day job and began work on a doctorate in mathematics at Columbia University. Florence went to work to support them, and Abraham Nemeth was on his way to fulfilling his dream.
Early in his pursuit of sophisticated mathematics, he had begun developing a private code to keep track of complicated calculations. There was no Braille code to support any math beyond basic arithmetic, because social expectations of blind people did not require a means of writing complex equations. Although Nemeth was blessed with a prodigious memory, even he needed a means of recording complicated mathematical computations and, as he would so often do when no existing means was available, he invented one for himself.
At the American Foundation for the Blind, Abraham Nemeth had become acquainted with another blind man, also an exception of the era, who came to his friend Abe in desperate need of a table of integrals. “I have one,” Nemeth told Clifford Witcher, “But it’s in my own private code. You wouldn’t be able to read it.” Witcher persuaded Nemeth to teach him the code and was an immediate convert. Cliff Witcher happened to serve on the Joint Uniform Braille Committee (the 1950 equivalent of the Braille Authority of North America) and invited Nemeth to prepare a report for that committee to review. He made his report one morning in 1951, and by afternoon the Nemeth code, as it was immediately and forever thereafter called, was unanimously adopted.
The work ethic and spirit of self-reliance Abe Nemeth learned from his parents was always evident. When he was offered part-time teaching jobs or one-time piano gigs, it never occurred to him to decline. He traveled throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan, using subways and buses, memorizing routes, using the orientation skills his father had instilled in him as a child, and somehow did it all without a white cane. Long white canes simply were not routine tools for blind people in the 1930s and 1940s. Remarkable though it seems today, Abraham Nemeth simply used the tools he had—his good mind and remaining senses--to travel where he needed to go. He would not have a white cane until 1955, when at last he landed a full-time teaching position, and he and Florence moved to Detroit.
In 1955 Nemeth was hired by the University of Detroit, where he spent thirty years teaching graduate and undergraduate mathematics courses. While there he completed his doctoral work at Wayne State University and received his Ph.D. in mathematics. In the 1960s he inaugurated the computer science department at the University of Detroit and would continue to teach in both disciplines till his retirement in 1985.
Retirement for Dr. Nemeth was not a time to relax but rather a time to pursue other scholarly and advocacy interests. He had always been aware of the National Federation of the Blind and became an active member in 1985, when his schedule finally enabled him to attend the national convention. He attended every national convention from 1985 through 2011. He continued to work on a uniform Braille system, combining existing forms of Braille notation for mathematics, literature, and computer notation, which he called the Nemeth Uniform Braille System (NUBS). He worked for five years in conjunction with JBI International (formerly the Jewish Braille Institute) to reorganize Jewish prayer books, in English and Hebrew, so that a blind person going to synagogue would need only one volume rather than nineteen in order to participate in any service. He was an active advocate for blind people in Michigan, helping to pass the Braille bill in that state to ensure that all blind children would have the opportunity to learn Braille and was fond of saying that, even though he was a Democrat, a Republican governor appointed him to chair the Michigan Commission for the Blind.
As sharp and brilliant at age ninety-four as any ordinary mortal one-third his age, his reservoir of memories and jokes seemed bottomless. "Will that one get in the book," he asked me more than once after regaling me with a joke or pun, limerick or riddle. He loved playing with words almost as much as numbers.
Called a true Renaissance man by David Sachs, who wrote the obituary for the Detroit Jewish News, Dr. Nemeth was a math professor, Hebrew scholar, gifted musician, and charismatic storyteller. Among numerous honors over the years, he was named a Thousand Points of Light Award winner by President Bush, and that light seemed apparent even at his funeral service. With waning strength to speak in his final hours, Dr. Nemeth murmured a comment to his friend and study partner, Abe Pasternak, which Pasternak gave to the rabbi for inclusion in Dr. Nemeth’s eulogy. That final comment contained the opening Hebrew words of the silent Amidah prayer, the translation of which is, “O Lord, open my lips, so that my mouth may declare Your praise.” Before Rabbi Yoskowitz spoke, a wind blew the scrap of paper into the grave, before the casket was lowered. In forty years and one thousand funerals, the Rabbi said he had never seen anything like it. It was a mystical moment indeed and reflective of the kind and brilliant man who always had one more thing to say.
In his apartment, surrounded by his Braille books — Jewish prayers, mathematics, philosophy, and economics — and his numerous awards and honors (a bust of Louis Braille among his favorites), he frequently quoted his beloved grandfather to me. “It is better to light a candle than to curse the dark,” was his most often quoted wisdom from his grandfather. The one that rings most true for me today, however, now that Dr. Nemeth is no longer with us, is his grandfather’s comment about time. "What do you mean you don't have time?" his grandfather chided. "You have all the time God created."
I don't know much about "all the time God has created." I do know that, no matter how much larger than life a person may be, time here eventually runs out. Blind physicists and engineers and math teachers and software designers everywhere thank Dr. Nemeth and bless his name daily as they run fingers across lines of complexity written in Nemeth code. As I finish the book, I'll be thinking about them, but mostly I'll be thinking about what humility and genius look like when they merge in one human being.