January 31, 2018

Alumnus cracks the code - for himself and countless others

Throughout its 150-year history, Wayne State University has been a leader in diversity and inclusion. One shining example is Abraham Nemeth, Ph.D. ’64.

Born blind, Nemeth excelled academically by using Braille to make his way through school — all the way to a master’s degree in psychology from Columbia University. But his efforts to study advanced mathematics were thwarted by Braille’s limitations, including the lack of code for square roots and computation symbols, a confusion between numbers and letters, and no way to tackle differential calculus. So Nemeth solved his own problem.

In the early 1940s, he set to work inventing a customized Braille system. It was so effective and well received that by the 1950s, what became known as the Nemeth Code was included in math textbooks.

Using his own language, Nemeth earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from Wayne State, taught sighted students using a chalkboard and his remarkable memory, and became revered throughout academia. His advocacy and adaptations, which he continued working on into his 90s, expanded career paths for visually impaired students around the world.

“We are so proud that WSU alumnus Abraham Nemeth developed a system whereby blind mathematicians could read notation in Braille,” says Wayne M. Raskind, professor of mathematics and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “His work served as inspiration to blind and sighted alike that anyone can follow their passion and be a full participant in mathematical life.”

As part of our Sesquicentennial Celebration throughout 2018, Wayne State University will share stories that highlight the people, places and moments that contribute to our 150-year history. Learn more at 150.wayne.edu.

All images courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library.

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