Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Dr. Jacob Bolotin (1888-1924); The world's first totally blind physician licensed to practice medicine.

Jacob Bolotin (1904)
Bolotin's parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. Chicago born Jacob was the seventh child in the family and the third of those seven to be born blind. 

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.

Upon graduation he had to fight again to take the exam to become a licensed physician. He endured months in an office where no patients came.

His talents were proven during his internship at Frances E. Willard National Termperance Hospital, 710 S. Lincoln (now Wolcott) Street, Chicago, Illinois. 
A young woman's illness was misdiagnosed by at least three other physicians -- who thought it was psychologically based -- when Jacob Bolotin examined her and immediately recognized a serious heart condition. When Jacob examined the girl, he was stunned to hear the distinct murmur of an obstructed heart valve. Could he be wrong? Slowly he ran his fingers over her chest. Her skin was sweaty and clammy. Again he pressed his ear to her heart and listened intently. There was no doubt. It was not simple neurasthenia, but the dull unmistakable murmur of mitral stenosis. Alarmed, he hurried to the office of his immediate supervisor, Dr. Maxmillian Kuznik, professor of clinical diagnosis.

His brilliance as a physician, however, was recognized by patients and other physicians long before he took his rightful place in the medical community. Even after working for months as a volunteer physician in a facility for tuberculosis patients, he was not hired by that institution. Patients loved him, and doctors frequently called upon him for consultation, but his blindness was repeatedly waved as an excuse for not paying him for his services.

Eventually, however, Dr. Bolotin grew to be a renowned heart and lung specialist, not only throughout Chicago, he became the foremost heart and lung specialists in the country. When he addressed a medical convention as a favor to a friend, his talent for speaking also became legendary. Reading excerpts from his speeches is astonishing. The philosophy and sentiments are in complete accord with the words of leaders in the blindness movement almost a century later. Listen, for instance, to his comments as quoted in the Chicago Tribune, when that newspaper ran a sensational article about the blind man about to become a licensed physician:
"Well, is there anything so remarkable about it? Because a man has no eyes, is it any sign that he hasn't any brains? That is the trouble with the world and the blind man. All the blind man asks is fair play. Give him an equal chance without prejudice, and he generally manages to hold his own with his more fortunate colleagues."
Dr. Bolotin died in 1924, at the young age of 36. He seems to have literally worked himself to death -- maintaining such a rigorous schedule of seeing patients and giving speeches that his body wore out. Five thousand people came to his funeral.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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