Dr. Abraham Nemeth possessed a brilliant mind that led him to become a revered member of Detroit’s Jewish community.
I was talking with my friend Lewis Tann, and he asked me if I was familiar with the story of Dr. Abraham Nemeth, the blind mathematician of Detroit. He suggested he might be a good topic for a “Looking Back” column. I was not aware of Nemeth but said I would research him in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History.
Lewis was right. The story of Abraham Nemeth is truly fantastic.
Nemeth was born in New York City into an Orthodox Jewish family, where Yiddish became his first and primary language. He was also blind at birth, but not having sight was never a handicap. Nemeth possessed a brilliant mind as well as vision beyond most of us who can see only with our eyes.
Nemeth worked his way through Brooklyn College as a piano player in New York nightclubs (later, he would play piano at Adat Shalom Synagogue and other venues in Detroit). After earning a B.A., he began studies at Columbia University in psychology. Nemeth had been told there was no path forward for a blind mathematician.
Nemeth was not deterred. At a moment when he was out of work, his wife asked him: “Wouldn’t you rather be an unemployed mathematician than an unemployed psychologist?” He went back to Columbia to study math and was hired as a professor at the University of Detroit in 1955.
Along the way, Nemeth created the Nemeth Code of Braille Mathematics and Scientific Notation, still in use today. Nemeth also compiled the Nemeth Dictionary of Braille Musical Symbols in 1954, and was the co-inventor of a Braille slide rule, the pre-electronic calculator of its day.
Nemeth already possessed impressive credentials and accomplishments, but he continued his education. A headline on a story in the Dec. 18, 1964, issue of the JN noted: “Abraham Nemeth, Blind from Birth, Awarded Doctor’s Degree by Wayne State University.” While teaching at the University of Detroit, he had attended night school at Wayne State.
Nemeth developed a world-wide reputation for his teaching skills and his accomplishments. For example, he was invited to Russia in 1972 to a conference on training the blind as computer programmers. For another, in 1991, Michigan Gov. John Engler appointed Nemeth chairman of the Michigan Commission for the Blind. He also accrued numerous awards, including the 1999 Migel Medal from the American Foundation for the Blind.
After Nemeth had taught at U of D for 30 years, JN Editor Philip Slomovitz wrote a piece about his retirement in the May 24, 1985, issue of the JN: “Indomitable Nemeth,” noting it was “inconceivable” to consider that Nemeth was retiring. “This man of courage, born blind yet filled with vision: without seeing eyes, yet aware of everything around him…,” wrote Slomovitz, concluding “he was always among this community’s more impressive symbols…”
Dr. Abraham Nemeth died in 2013 at age 94, a revered member of Detroit’s Jewish community. He always said, “If you take enough steps in the right direction, you will eventually get there.” Nemeth did indeed take a lot of steps in the right direction, quite a few more than most of us.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.