Abraham Nemeth: Inventor of a Braille system for science and mathematics

 

Abraham Nemeth was a blind mathematician and college professor who developed a widely used Braille system, the Nemeth Code, that makes it easier for blind people to become proficient in mathematics and science. As a college student in the 1930s he had been discouraged from studying maths because it was assumed that a blind person would not be able to follow equations and calculations written on a blackboard.

He graduated in psychology, but even with a master's degree from Columbia he was unable to find work. He took a series of jobs, including sewing pillowcases, then followed his wife's advice and took graduate courses in mathematics, devising a shorthand way of making computations; this was the beginning of his Code.

It was far more complex than creating symbols for the numerals 0-9. Nemeth first had to understand mathematics at a deep level, then convert the language of maths into a system that could be understood in a code of raised dots. Each of the hundreds of symbols used in maths required a Braille equivalent. When a blind physicist asked if he had a scientific table in Braille, Nemeth said he did but that it was in a personal form of notation that only he understood. Within 30 minutes the physicist had mastered the system.

The Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation was published in 1952 and Nemeth, who became a professor at what is now the University of Detroit Mercy, travelled round the world to promote his system. It remains essentially unchanged and has become the standard way to teach blind students at every level of maths. He also helped devise a Braille version of the slide rule and other computational and scientific instruments and he contributed to the invention of a calculator that gave results in a spoken voice.

Born in New York into an immigrant Jewish family, Nemeth was blind from birth. His father walked with him on the streets to make him comfortable with his surroundings: "My father encouraged me to touch the raised letters on mailboxes, fire hydrants and police and fire call boxes. That's how I learned the letters of the alphabet."

Nemeth taught himself to play piano and worked his way through college playing in dance bands. He also became a skilled carpenter. He never had a guide dog and only rarely used a cane and believed that a blind person could master virtually any skill or discipline, no matter how technical. His advice to parents was "expect from a blind child what you expect from a sighted child."

Matt Schudel, Washington Post

Abraham Nemeth, mathematician: born New York 16 October 1918; married firstly Florence Weissman (died 1970), secondly Edna Lazar (died 2001); there stepchildren; died Southfield, Michigan 2 October 2013.

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