Image of Emerson Foulke

Emerson Foulke, 1929 to 1997

Emerson Foulke Dies
by Marc Maurer

On Monday, December 29, 1997, Dr. Emerson Foulke, a long-time member and leader in the National Federation of the Blind, died of cancer at his home in Louisville, Kentucky. Dr. Foulke was well known in the field of research regarding blindness and Braille. He established the Research Laboratory at the University of Louisville, where he served as a professor of psychology for a quarter of a century. For over a year in 1995 and 1996 he was the director of the International Braille Research Center, an international research organization focusing on Braille and communications for the blind.

Dr. Foulke was a leader of the National Federation of the Blind of Kentucky. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Research and Development Committee of the National Federation of the Blind, and he was one of the principal researchers designing innovative products for the Federation. In 1993 he was granted the Distinguished Blind Educator of the Year Award by the National Federation of the Blind. He was widely published in the field of Braille and tactile communications. He worked extensively to enhance understanding of Braille codes and to ensure their ease of use. He is one of the best-known authors dealing with research into the use and importance of Braille.

These are facts about the life and contribution of Emerson Foulke, but they do not demonstrate the character of the man. He was enormously curious about the way things are done and how people think. He was warm and generous and always prepared to offer a joke or a story. He could be serious and analytical, but he felt that the leavening of an amusing anecdote or a shaggy dog story would help to lighten the mood and make the day go better. He was prepared to give a hand and help a friend, but he was also prepared to share his knowledge, his experience, and his resources with someone he had only recently met. Among his enormous curiosities, he conducted the most extensive research in the nation regarding the way in which blind people learn through tactile images. His contributions must be measured not in individual accomplishments but in the framework of the mind and spirit that he brought to creating a better life for the blind.

My life and the lives of many other Federation members have been enriched because Dr. Emerson Foulke was our friend. He is gone, but the spirit of excitement, of exploration, and of enthusiasm that was an essential part of him is with us still.

The obituary in the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal has this to say about Dr. Emerson Foulke, a Federationist who will be greatly missed:

Emerson Foulke Dies; Was U of L Professor

Innovator for the Blind

by Katherine L. Sears

Emerson Foulke, a retired psychology professor at the University of Louisville who established a research center that developed alternative forms of reading and communication for visually impaired adults, died of cancer Monday at his Louisville home. He was sixty-eight.

Foulke, who had been blind since he was two, worked to develop alternatives to Braille because most blind Americans can't read Braille, he told the Courier-Journal in 1976.

He founded the Perceptual Alternatives Laboratory in 1968 and served as its director until he retired in 1992.

Foulke developed techniques to compress information from audio tapes. His equipment could speed up recordings of books and text and still enable someone to retain pertinent information.

He also worked to increase the number of ideas that could be expressed in Braille to make it easier for people to understand complex subjects such as chemistry and math.

Foulke also developed for blind people a curved cane that wouldn't get caught in sidewalk gratings.

Lela Johns, an assistant of Foulke at the lab, said the university closed it after he retired. But Foulke continued to devise improvements to computer codes in math for the National Federation of the Blind, Johns said.

"He was still very active in the research for improving the educational techniques and communication for visually impaired people," Johns said. "He was a very challenging person to work for. He always wanted to learn more."

Louisville resident Tim Cranmer, who chairs the International Braille Research Center in Baltimore, said Foulke was known worldwide for his innovations in electronic communications for blind and visually impaired people.

"He is probably the most widely published and widely quoted (person) in the field of Braille research and tactile communications," said Cranmer, who also is blind. "His loss is absolutely profound as far as our field is concerned. We do not have a successor for Dr. Foulke."

Cranmer said Foulke recently received the Louis Braille Memorial Award, a 3-ounce solid-gold medallion and $10,000, from the International Braille Research Center, which Foulke helped establish in 1985.

Last year Foulke spoke to the World Blind Union meeting in South America. He also earned the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of Louisville.

His survivors include his wife, Marilyn Foulke; sisters Margaret Meyer and Patricia Rountree; and a brother, Eldridge Foulke.

He willed his body to the University of Louisville School of Medicine. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. January 10 at First Unitarian Church, 809 South Fourth Street.