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Abraham Nemeth

Nemeth-and-Ashleah

[National Federation of the Blind]

Mathematician and Braille pioneer Abraham Nemeth died last Wednesday. From tomorrow’s NYT obit:

Abraham Nemeth, whose frustrations in pursuing an academic career in math prompted him to develop the Nemeth Code, a form of Braille that drastically improved the ability of visually impaired people to study complex mathematics, died on Wednesday at his home in Southfield, Mich. He was 94.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his niece Dianne Bekritsky.

Blind since he was an infant, Dr. Nemeth grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the grandson of a kosher butcher. He was a bright child who taught himself to play the piano using Braille music books and was increasingly drawn to what he later called “the beauty of mathematics.”

Yet as his math skills increased, he found that Braille could take him only so far. It was too easy to confuse letters and numbers in certain situations and too cumbersome to constantly clarify. The more complicated math became, the more limited Braille became.

“There was no way of doing square roots, partial differentials, et cetera,” said Joyce Hull, who worked with Dr. Nemeth for many years, refining and writing manuals for his code. “That’s one of the reasons they said, ‘No, blind people can’t do math.’ ”

Dr. Nemeth knew that they could. Even as college advisers steered him in other directions — he earned his master’s in psychology from Columbia in 1942 — he began tinkering with the six-dot cell that is the foundation of Braille. By the late 1940s, while working in the shipping department of the American Foundation for the Blind (and playing piano in Brooklyn bars to make extra money), he had come up with a customized Braille code for math; he made symbols for the basics of addition and subtraction but also for the complexities of differential calculus. He even made a Braille slide rule.

He began informally sharing his new symbols with others, and the code quickly caught on. In 1950, he presented it to the American Joint Uniform Braille Committee. By the mid-1950s, the Nemeth Code had been adopted by national groups and incorporated into textbooks, providing him with a new career. In 1955, he was hired by the University of Detroit to teach math — to sighted students, using a chalkboard.

[snip]

Dr. Nemeth received his doctorate in mathematics from Wayne State University in Detroit. He began studying computer science in the 1960s and later started the university’s computer science program. He retired in 1985. For two years he served as the chairman of the Michigan Commission for the Blind.

Throughout his life, he dedicated much of his spare time to creating Braille versions of Jewish texts, including helping to proofread a Braille Hebrew Bible in the 1950s. He also helped develop MathSpeak, a method for communicating math orally.

Dr. Cary Supalo, a professor at Illinois State University who is blind and works to make science and science laboratories accessible to the blind, said Dr. Nemeth was revered among educators focused on the blind.

And from a National Federation of the Blind news release:

Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said: “Dr. Nemeth had a great mind and a wonderful sense of humor. His invention of the Braille code that bears his name has enabled many blind people to learn, work, and excel in scientific, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and his tireless Braille advocacy work undoubtedly changed countless lives. He will be sorely missed and his contributions will be valued by generations to come.”

The news release also links to a 1991 interview with Nemeth, from which I’ve taken the photo above.

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Categories: Math, Obituary
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