Blind Professor Receives Macarthur Award

Copyright © 1995
National Federation of the Blind

          Those who attended the 1988 convention of the National Federation of the Blind, held in Chicago, Illinois, will remember that one of the speakers was Professor Geerat Vermeij, a marine biologist whose address was entitled, "To Sea with a Blind Scientist." He spoke passionately of his love of science and his conviction that blindness need not prevent anyone with the ability to engage in the scientific discipline from pursuing that goal. He also warned his audience that, in his experience, a thorough knowledge and extensive use of Braille were essential to good record keeping. His self-confidence and insistence on acquiring the opportunities for research that are necessary to a first-class working scientist exemplify Federationism in one of its most effective forms.

          Through the intervening years we have watched Dr. Vermeij's progress with interest. From the University of Maryland, where he was teaching when we first helped him win his battle to obtain a place on a research ship which he had been denied because of blindness, he moved on to the Department of Geology at the prestigious University of California at Davis, near Sacramento. His career has continued to be distinguished, and this summer he received a truly extraordinary honor.

          On Tuesday, June 16, 1992, the MacArthur Foundation announced the names of the recipients of the famous MacArthur Awards for 1992. Dr. Vermeij is one of this year's honorees. Many newspaper stories were written about the winners. The following is the relevant portion of a front-page article from the June 16 edition of the Sacramento Bee, which describes Professor Vermeij's honor. Here is the article:

Davis Professor Wins $280,000 as "Genius"

by Ramon Coronado

          Geerat J. Vermeij has been blind since age three, but he has made a career out of seeing things most people can't see.

          The fifty-four-year-old University of California, Davis, professor, collects, studies, and teaches others his observations about seashells.

          "What they tell us has broad implications," said the Dutch immigrant, who believes the study of the evolution of shell- bearing marine animals imparts lessons about architecture, the world economy, and even the arms race.

          Citing Vermeij for his lasting discoveries about how animals protect themselves against predators and factors affecting extinction, the MacArthur Fellowship Foundation on Monday selected Vermeij as one of the winners of one of its genius grants.

          This year's fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation ranged from $150,000 to $375,000. The grants, which have been presented by the huge philanthropic organization since 1981, went to thirty-three artists, scientists, leaders, and thinkers who were recognized for their talent and creativity.

          Vermeij, who likes to be called Gary, was awarded $280,000 to spend as he wishes. He said he plans to use some of the money to travel and some to help students.

          Sitting in a small den in his Davis home Monday night, Vermeij was surrounded by bookshelves filled with volumes of Braille, many of which were specially transcribed for him.

          "When you go into science, there's essentially nothing in Braille," said the Princeton and Yale graduate, who has authored two books of his own.

          For Vermeij, who came to this country at age nine, the study of shells was a lifelong ambition.

          "I have known what I wanted to do since fourth grade," he said, recalling his fascination when a teacher brought shells from a Florida beach into a New Jersey classroom.

          The biggest obstacle during his education, he recalled, came when a state agency for the blind declined to pay someone to read books about shells to him.

          Eventually the state agency backed down, and Vermeij went on to earn his Ph.D. in biology and geology. He taught zoology at the University of Maryland for seventeen years before arriving at the University of California at Davis in 1988, where he is now a professor in the geology department.

          That is what one reporter had to say upon the announcement of Dr. Vermeij's award. On August 17, in conjunction with the presentation of the MacArthur Awards, the Fresno Bee carried a more complete profile of this distinguished scientist. Here it is:

With a Touch of Class, Blind Scientist Makes His Mark
Davis Professor is a World Authority
on Mollusks, Animals that Build Shells

by Jules Loh

          "I do not think of blindness as an advantage," the professor was saying the other day, in all seriousness. Well, of course not.

          But neither was Geerat Vermeij, the blind professor, speculating on possible reasons why he was chosen just recently for a $280,000 grant to use as he pleases, no strings attached.

          There's no reason to suspect the award was for anything other than solid scientific accomplishment. That and the safe bet that with financial distractions removed, further meritorious research would result.

          Vermeij's curious remark was in response to an even more curious comment on his blindness by a colleague. The man was admiringly puzzled by Vermeij's almost uncanny perception of subtle differences in the structure of seashells.

          He had watched Vermeij turn shells in his hands, inspecting each tiny ridge and crevice with patient fingers, and had wondered if his insight could be in part because Vermeij was, as he put it, "unencumbered by sight." Unlike others, Vermeij did not rely on color, often an undependable clue to identification, and seemed to see more.

          Geerat Vermeij (his name is pronounced Ver-MAY; his friends call him Gary), a professor of paleobiology at the University of California at Davis, is a world authority on mollusks, animals that build shells.

          Scientists know him as the one whose work has moved the understanding of mollusks from the merely anatomical to the analytical. Vermeij's research has uncovered the ways shells work, why some species have survived their predators and others become extinct.

          Thus he has added a significant line of inquiry into the study of evolution. One of his books, subtitled "An Ecological History of Life," is considered a large contribution in the field of marine conservation.

          He has written three books and about ninety research papers. He edits Paleobiology, the premier journal in that field, and will take over in the fall as editor of Evolution. He also teaches several geology courses at the university.

          Scientists across the world know Vermeij not just from his work but personally. His field trips have taken him to about forty countries whose shorelines have become as familiar to him as the shells he brings back. He is equally at home on a reef or in a mangrove swamp as in a lecture hall or museum.

          The $280,000 fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, he says, will allow for even more travel.

          "When there's an opportunity to go I can just go," he says. "Money is valuable, but time is even more valuable. Now I can buy an occasional bit of time."

          But why? The blind poet asks, "Doth God exact day labor, light denied?" Vermeij's reply, like Milton's, is his work schedule. Like Milton, he has neither time nor inclination for self-pity.

          "Blindness is a nuisance that can be largely overcome," Vermeij says. "It is not a disaster. It is not to be pitied or revered. It is just a condition that has to be dealt with as you get on with life."

          Geerat Vermeij is forty-five, of average height, lean, with sharp facial features and a thin reddish beard and mustache.

          He was born in a small town in the Netherlands where doctors diagnosed his poor eyesight as infant glaucoma. "I remember seeing colors, although shapes were never very sharp," he says. He remembers the colors, also the pain from pressure that would have caused brain damage. At age three, "quite sensibly," he says, they removed his eyes.

          He had his ninth birthday on a ship bound for the United States, specifically to New Jersey, a state which his parents found to have a most enlightened program for the blind.

          "I had been in a school for the blind since I was three," Vermeij says. "It was a boarding school. It was horrible to be away from home, but there was no alternative.

          "In New Jersey, the state commissioner for the blind believed--as did my parents, and I agree--that the blind should go to public schools."

          The state provided textbooks in Braille and he caught up quickly. He graduated from Nutley, New Jersey, High School first in his class, the 1965 valedictorian.

          "Back in fourth grade," Vermeij recalls, "I had a teacher who was directly responsible for one of the most important turns in my life.

          "Her name was Caroline Colberg. She came back from a vacation in Florida that year with a bunch of shells and put them on the windowsill to decorate the classroom. I was astonished.

          "When I was a kid I collected things as kids do--pine cones, acorns, leaves, all of it, including shells.

          "But those Florida shells were so much more elegant in shape and texture than anything I'd seen before. To me they were works of art. I still think so.

          "The first scientific question I think I asked myself was, `Why are these shells so much prettier than the shells in Holland? Why don't they have the same chalky texture?'

          "The question is still valid. I've gone some way to answering it but I don't have the complete answer by any means."

          Questing after the answer, Vermeij took a bachelor's degree, summa cum laude, from Princeton in three years and went straight into the doctorate program at Yale, which he also completed in three years.

          "My thesis compared tropical snails with temperate ones. It was an OK study. It got published," he said, and added, smiling, "like many other unimportant studies."

          Vermeij has considerably higher regard for the papers he has published since, at a pace that causes other scholars to blink.

          "I believe in the publish-or-perish system," he says. "Scientists who don't publish are shirking their responsibility. Many who don't are afraid to be wrong, a misplaced fear. You're apt to be wrong sometimes. So long as you're not wrong all the time it's OK."

          Vermeij comes right out with what some researchers might also consider a heresy, their obligation to teach.

          "The research certainly enriches my teaching," he says, "but it also works the other way around.

          "Sometimes I give a lecture and a question will arise in my own mind that I don't have an answer to, or just an interesting problem. If I didn't have to teach, they probably might not have occurred to me."

          Vermeij taught for seventeen years at the University of Maryland, the last nine as a professor of zoology, before moving to the University of California three years ago.

          His years at Maryland, he says, gave him the enviable opportunity to work every Saturday in the world's largest collection of crustaceans at the nearby Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum.

          Even so, to live in California with a whole ocean at his doorstep had been his ambition.

          "This is where I've always wanted to live," he says. "I couldn't be happier."

          In his university office are a bank of drawers containing his precious shells and fossils and others, newcomers, on his work table waiting to be studied, classified, stored away. "They give me inspiration."

          Shelves hold one hundred-fifty bound volumes of his own Braille notes of the 10,000 papers and books he has read, cross- referenced so he can locate citations for his own writings. Colleagues are astounded by his recall of everything he has read or heard.

          His home is a ten-minute bus ride from campus. He and his wife, Edith, whom he met at Yale where she was a molecular biology student, have a ten-year-old daughter, Hermine.

          The new federal law to ban job discrimination against the disabled may help advance a quiet crusade Vermaij has been waging all his life. But the problem, he says, begins long before the first job application.

          "One of the general sadnesses is that the blind are discouraged by presumably well-intentioned people from pursuing what they want to pursue.

          "I was turned down for a trip to the Aleutians aboard a boat owned by the University of Alaska. Too dangerous. Insurance and all that. But I had met the person who turned me down aboard the same boat in New Guinea.

          "Many blind people feel themselves terribly inferior as a consequence of having been told that so many times. A very important first step is to make people feel it's okay to be blind."

          Actually, he says, in his opinion sight is not the most inconvenient of the five senses to lose. "Hearing would be worse, although a deaf person might not agree. Or touch."

          Nobody, he feels, should be denied a chance at the fullest life possible by someone else's notion of what's good for them.

          "They should have equal opportunity. That, of course. But not," he said, groping for the term, "you know...affirmative action. Not that. People shouldn't have to wonder, or have others wonder, about their true merit. I believe that can only hurt the people it's designed to help.

          "I see it as my main mission to be as successful as I can be at my chosen profession and that it represent real scientific accomplishment. If that rubs off on the blind, that's fine."

          Geerat Vermeij, then, appears to have a further response to that colleague who was puzzled by a sightless professor's uncanny grasp of the remarkable beauty of a seashell: No, there is no advantage to being blind. Nor should there be.

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