As a college student in the 1930s, Dr. Nemeth was discouraged from studying mathematics because it was assumed that a blind person would not be able to follow the equations and calculations written on a blackboard.
He majored in psychology instead, but even with a master’s degree from Columbia University he was unable to find work in his field. He took a series of jobs, including in a factory sewing pillowcases, then decided to follow the advice of his wife: “Wouldn’t you rather be an unemployed mathematician than an unemployed psychologist?”
He began to take graduate courses in mathematics at night, devising his own shorthand way of making computations.
“I began to improvise Braille symbols and methods which were both effective for my needs and consistent from one course to the next,” he once wrote in an autobiographical essay. “So this was the beginning of the Nemeth Code.”
It was far more complex than creating symbols for the numerals zero through nine. Dr. Nemeth first had to understand mathematics at a deep level, then had to convert the language of math into a unified system that could be understood by touch in a Braille code of raised dots.
Hundreds of symbols are used in mathematics to represent fractions and square roots, to indicate multiplication, division and countless other functions and formulas. Each of them required a Braille equivalent.
When a blind physicist asked if he had a scientific table in Braille, Dr. Nemeth said he did, but it was in a personal form of notation that only he understood. Within 30 minutes, Dr. Nemeth later recalled, the physicist had mastered the new system, which he praised for its simplicity and practicality.
The Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation was published in 1952 and quickly caught on around the country as the standard way of teaching mathematics to blind students.
Dr. Nemeth, who became a tenured professor at what is now the University of Detroit Mercy, traveled all over the world to promote his system, which is widely known as the Nemeth Code.
It has been revised from time to time, but it remains essentially unchanged and has become the standard way to teach blind students at every level of math, from 2+2=4 to advanced calculus and beyond. It is used throughout the United States, Canada, New Zealand and other countries.
“It is very simple to learn and very simple to apply,” said Carl Augusto, president and chief executive of the American Foundation for the Blind, in an interview. “Braille was invented by Louis Braille almost two centuries ago. But for almost 150 years, until Abe Nemeth invented this math code, Braille was incomplete because there wasn’t a streamlined way to learn math and science skills.”