Reviewed by Mimi Winer, Wayland, Massachusetts
I recently read an absorbing biography about a blind physician. The book tells the story of Chicago-born Jacob Bolotin (1888-1924). According to the author, Rosalind Perlman, this doctor was the first person born without sight to receive his license to practice medicine.
The author vividly portrays the life of this determined, brilliant man. Besides discussing the struggles he endured to achieve his dream of becoming a practicing physician, she describes the hard-won training that enabled Bolotin to develop into an outstanding cardiologist and lung specialist.
Published in 2007, THE BLIND DOCTOR: THE JACOB BOLOTIN STORY (DB64720), is available through the NLS/Bard Talking Book Program.
Jacob Bolotin was the youngest of seven children. His parents, impoverished Polish Jews, had immigrated to America six years before his birth. Their last three children were born totally blind. It is interesting to note that Bolotin’s life overlapped that of the famous Helen Keller–a few years his senior. While Keller used her disability as a means of earning her living, Bolotin chose a career which by its very nature implies the necessity of eyesight. Unfortunately, unlike Keller, who lived well into her 80s, Bolotin had only 36 brief years to leave his mark on society.
It took time after Jacob’s birth for his parents to recognize that he had no sight. His eyes looked normal, and he had the innate ability to make perfect eye contact. However, just as his blind siblings, Fred and Sarah, had done at his age, Jacob crashed into the walls and furniture constantly as he began to crawl. It became obvious that the baby could not see.
When his mother went to enroll six-year-old Fred in public school, Jacob, now age four, wanted to go, too. The blind brothers had always done everything together. Upon hearing that Fred and Jacob were blind, the principal told their mother there was no place in the public schools for blind children.
Since the public school system could not educate the children, the Bolotins applied to the local Jewish Training School for admission. The school’s principal was willing to give Fred a chance, but he indicated that Jacob was too young. The precocious child immediately stated he already knew as much as his brother. To prove it, Jacob recited his A B C’s and then breathlessly counted all the way up to one hundred. Charmed by Jacob’s enthusiasm for learning, the principal decided to give the little scholar a chance.
Soon realizing that his school did not have the necessary tools to teach blind children, the principal advised the parents to send the boys to a school for the blind. Here, they would have the opportunity for a better education. Shortly thereafter, the principal boarded a train with the two little boys and escorted them to the distant Illinois School for the Blind. The Bolotin family was so poor that the parents could not afford to visit the children. They did not see one another until graduation–nine years later. Although graduation from the school was usually at age 16, 14-year-old Jacob became valedictorian of his class.
Despite his excellent education and superb blind skills, on returning home, Jacob could not find work. Accompanied only by a wooden cane, he searched the city of Chicago. No one would hire him. After many months of tramping about the city, Jacob became an excellent traveler. Designing a mental map of the various neighborhoods, memorizing route hazards, and learning all the streetcar destinations, he rarely became lost. Jacob’s orientation and mobility techniques proved to be invaluable when he finally found a job as a door-to-door salesman.
First pedaling matches at four cents a box, the young entrepreneur moved on to selling a variety of brushes, from which he could make more money. Although he disliked what he was doing, Jacob needed the money–both to help support the Bolotin family and to further his education. Working twelve hours a day, he finally had enough money to attend a brief training program of what appears to have been massage therapy. Jacob had thought this training would lead to a career in the healing arts. Recognizing that the poorly taught course was inadequate, he set his sights on going to medical school instead. In order to pay for medical school, Jacob had to find a better way to earn money. Hearing about a company that needed salesman to sell newly-designed typewriters in commercial settings, Jacob applied for a job. He had excellent typing skills, which would enable him to show potential customers how to use a typewriter. The owner of the company was ready to hire him. Then, noticing Jacob’s cane, he realized that he was blind. Jacob persuaded the boss to hire him on a trial basis, and he worked for one month without pay. His ability to demonstrate the benefits of using a typewriter, his smooth sales pitches, and his knowledge of the city gave Jacob an advantage that put him on a par with his sighted competitors. Eventually, the president offered Jacob one of the highest salaries ever paid at the typewriter company.
Jacob found a medical school that taught courses from 7 to 10 at night. By working during the day and attending school at night, he would have enough money to pay for the first year. After some initial hassles from the administration, he was allowed to enroll. Toward the end of his first year, the state withdrew accreditation, and the medical school closed its doors. It took Jacob another four years to earn enough money to begin his medical education again.
Returning to the typewriter company, Jacob renegotiated with its president. His contract gave him sole rights to sell typewriters in areas outside of Chicago. At the end of four years, Jacob had sold typewriters in every state of the Union. At last, earning enough money to pay for his tuition, Jacob, now 20, became a full-time student at a prestigious medical school in Chicago.
At medical school, Jacob developed new techniques to access information. For example, in his anatomy course, the class mascot, Elmo the skeleton, taught the young medical student everything he needed to know about human bones. While the other students were dissecting cadavers, Jacob molded clay parts of internal organs–placing them accurately into a clay human body. He received an “A” for the course.
However, Jacob began falling behind. He could not find appropriate readers to help him access the necessary medical information from the print textbooks. A fellow student, named Hermie, approached him. He too was having trouble with his courses. A recent immigrant from Poland, Hermie, although he could read English, could not comprehend the difficult medical terms. He proposed that they help each other. Jacob agreed. After classes, the two students retired to the back room of a saloon owned by Hermie. Here, they studied for many hours every night. While Jacob interpreted the medical terms, Hermie read the text aloud. They worked together for four years, became best friends, and graduated from medical school with honors.
Dr. Jacob Bolotin was 24 years old when he began to work with patients. His remarkable memory and his use of senses other than sight helped him become an extraordinary physician. He had total recall of his patients and their ailments. No matter how long between visits, Dr. Bolotin had an uncanny way of identifying and diagnosing patients by their voices, their walk, and even their smell. With his sensitive touch, he measured the temperatures and pulses of patients as accurately as if he had relied on a thermometer or watch. Placing his ear to the patient’s chest or probing gently with his fingers, he was often able to pick up heart problems or chest lesions that his colleagues had missed. These techniques allowed him to become one of the foremost heart and lung specialists in the country.
We learn how Bolotin, blessed with high intelligence and enormous drive, manages to overcome almost impossible challenges. Moreover, he earns the respect of those who had tried to place barriers in his way. Ironically, Dr. Bolotin, a specialist in cardiology, having saved the lives of innumerable patients, was unable to save his own. Twelve years after receiving his degree from medical school, Jacob Bolotin died of heart complications. Over 5,000 people attended the beloved doctor’s funeral.
The renowned physician’s memory lives on through “The Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award.” Administered annually by the National Federation of the Blind, the award is given to blind people or organizations judged to have made a significant impact within the blind community.