Abraham Nemeth, 94, developer of Braille math code, dies

Abraham Nemeth, a blind mathematician and college professor who developed a widely used Braille system that made it easier for other blind people to become proficient in mathematics and science, died Oct. 2 at his home in Southfield, Mich. He was 94.

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

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.

Abraham Nemeth, who developed a Braille code for mathematics and science. (National Federation of the Blind)

“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.”

Dr. Nemeth didn’t stop with his Braille notational code. He helped devise a Braille version of the slide rule and other computational and scientific instruments. Later in his career, he contributed to the invention of a calculator that gave results in a spoken voice. He was also a primary developer of MathSpeak, an oral instructional system for mathematics.

“He’s a legend, no doubt,” said Jennifer Dunnam, manager of Braille programs for the National Federation of the Blind.

Since the adoption of Dr. Nemeth’s Braille code, blind students have been able to enter the fields of science, engineering and technology in greater numbers.

“Before the Nemeth Code and after the Nemeth Code: There is a big difference,” Dunnam said.

“I believe if not for Abe Nemeth,” Augusto added, “blind people would have been shut out of those careers.”

Abraham Nemeth was born Oct. 16, 1918, in New York City. He was blind from birth and grew up in an immigrant Jewish family. His father often walked with him on city 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,” Dr. Nemeth said in a 1994 interview with the publication the Exceptional Parent. “That’s how I learned the letters of the alphabet.”

He attended public schools and learned Braille as a child, but he was not proficient in math at first. He prepared his own Braille texts to study for his bar mitzvah and later helped transcribe Hebrew religious writings into Braille.

Dr. Nemeth also taught himself to play piano, becoming so accomplished that he worked his way through college playing in dance bands.

After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1940, he received a master’s degree in psychology from Columbia in 1942. While working at the American Foundation for the Blind, he took graduate courses in mathematics and began to tutor soldiers returning from World War II.

Dr. Nemeth also became a skilled carpenter, building kitchen cabinets in the first home he shared with his first wife, the former Florence Weissman. She taught him to write on paper and on a blackboard, which helped him find teaching jobs.

“The first line of writing goes at the top of the board — level with the top of my head,” he once said. “The next line is at my eye level, the third at chin level, the one after that at chest level. You just work down.”

After teaching in colleges in New York, Dr. Nemeth joined the faculty of the old University of Detroit in 1955. He received a doctorate in mathematics from Detroit’s Wayne State University in 1964 and later developed a curriculum in computer science at the University of Detroit, where he taught until his retirement in 1985.

In the 1990s, Dr. Nemeth was chairman of the Michigan Commission for the Blind. He was widely honored for his work and was often featured as a speaker at conventions.

“He was loquacious,” Augusto said. “When he entered a room, you knew he was there. He had a loud voice and wasn’t afraid to use it.”

Dr. Nemeth’s first wife died in 1970. A year later, he married his second wife, Edna Lazar, who died in 2001. Survivors include three stepchildren.

Dr. Nemeth believed that a blind person could master virtually any skill or discipline, no matter how technical. His advice to parents was “to expect from a blind child what you expect from a sighted child.”

He never had a guide dog and only rarely used a cane. As a child, he rode his tricycle along the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan and got in the same scrapes as any other kid.

“One time, my brother, Aaron, and I went on some kind of an expedition,” Dr. Nemeth recalled in a 1994 interview. “We got separated, and my brother, who had normal vision, got lost; I came home.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.



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