Dr. David Wohlers
“I am not the first blind chemist and I am not the only blind chemist, but I am one of the few blind chemists” says Dr. David Wohlers.
Dr David Wohlers is a world renowned chemist. He obtained his Ph.D in chemistry from the Kansas State University, U.S.A., with a specialization in inorganic synthesis and photochemistry—the study of how light alters the chemical properties of a substance.
Born to a working class family in 1952, David has one elder and four younger siblings. A congenital eye disease called Retinal Blastoma, affected both his eyes at a very early age. Due to a failed medical treatment he lost the vision in his right eye to surgery before the age of four, and whatever little vision he had in his other eye was lost to unsuccessful cataract surgery. He became completely blind by the age of eight.
After which David attended a residential school for the blind in Vinton, Iowa and then, David graduated from Davenport Central High School. He was very active in all school and college activities where he served as a member of the Student Council. David also earned a spot in the University wrestling team. His all round interests did not go unnoticed and he became the President of the Local Junior Achievement Group.
Then came the difficult part; the time when he had to make a career choice for himself. In spite of the aptitude tests showing that he might make a good scientist, his high school guidance counselor told him, it was too bad he couldn’t take up the science stream. And David didn’t think to ask why, because back then “blind scientist sounded like a virtual impossibility.” Neither had David nor had anyone else he knew heard of a blind scientist. So, David joined the University of Iowa as an economics and a business major, thinking it was the most practical field for a blind person.
He soon discovered that he had made a mistake. “I couldn’t stand reading that stuff, nor could I motivate myself to do so” he said. After failing in the economics exam, David decided to follow his heart as his interest in science had started to kindle right from the time when he was in school. He recalled “I loved the idea of synthesizing something new that nobody had made before.” So David eventually switched to a double major in chemistry and Mathematics. David wasn’t even sure if he could do the lab work, as there were no microcomputers then. But David was optimistic—he just had faith that someday there would be a solution, and that the technology would catch up.
David obtained his B.A. degree from University of Iowa and a B.S. in chemistry from the American Chemical Society. As a graduate student, it wasn’t all easy going for David. He had his share of being refused admission in the universities because of his blindness. Also, the support mechanism was not in place. The assistive tools to help in the lab work were not easily available. But nothing could keep David away from his passion.
It was his optimism that led him to becoming a scientist with a doctorate degree. To start with, some of the students acted as David’s ‘eyes’ in the laboratory. They handled the chemicals, mixed the various reagents and also measured the products. David was the brains behind the operations, telling the volunteers what to do at each step. It was not long before David realized that chemistry is all about the brain. The lead scientist doesn’t have to do the laboratory hand-to-hand work. That’s when David decided he would need to be the boss. He could be intellectually immersed in the work to manage the ideas while delegating the practical work to his sighted assistants.
His doctorate degree earned him a faculty position in the chemistry department at Truman State University in Missouri, U.S.A. As a professor, David was undoubtedly a hard task master. He would silently observe his students while they struggled to complete their experiment using trial and error method. In fact, with the technology on their side, the blind students can now think of pursuing careers which they once thought were beyond their reach. The new electronic devices act as the blind person’s eyes by turning visual information into sound or Braille text. Now the talking instruments can tell blind scientists the colour, temperature, and the weight of the chemical compounds.
David feels committed to continue to investigate and discover methods to enhance science education for the visually impaired and blind students. He feels that the combination of technology and hands-on lab experience will boost the confidence of the blind students.