Dr. Patricia Bath Helped the Blind to See

It’s March. That means it is Women’s History Month in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. For one month each year, we recognize and salute the contributions of extraordinary and ordinary women, so that someday, someday soon, history lessons everywhere will include these women’s contributions. Today, this blog salutes Dr. Patricia E. Bath the amazing woman who helped the blind to see.

Image of Dr. Patricia E Bath, the amazing woman who helped the blind to see
National Library of Medicine / Public domain

My love of humanity and passion for helping others inspired me to become a physician.

Dr. Patricia Bath

Early Life

Patricia Bath was born in Harlem on November 4, 1942.Her father, Rupert Bath, was a Trinidadian immigrant. Notably, he was the first black motorman to work for the New York City subway system. Her mother, Gladys, was a housewife and domestic worker. Gladys’s ancestry included African slaves and Cherokee Native Americans. Her parents worked hard to provide for their children. They instilled in her a love of travel, a desire to learn about new cultures, and a scientific curiosity.

Merit Award

Inspired by Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s service to lepers in the Congo and her family physician, she wanted to be a medical doctor. She excelled in school.

When she was sixteen, she applied for and received a National Science Foundation Scholarship. With the scholarship, she did a research project at Yeshiva University and Harlem Hospital Center. She studied connections between cancer, nutrition, and stress. Her discoveries during the program impressed Dr. Robert Bernard, the program head. He published her findings in a scientific paper. In 1960, she earned Mademoiselle magazine’s Merit Award for her discoveries.

Education

She attended Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C. Then she served an internship at Harlem Hospital from 1968 to 1969. From 1969 to 1970, she completed a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. Dr. Bath completed her training at New York University between 1970 and 1973, where she was the first African American resident in ophthalmology.

During this time, she got married and had a daughter. While concentrating on motherhood, she also completed a fellowship in corneal transplantation and keratoprosthesis (replacing the human cornea with an artificial one).

Community Ophthalmology

image of a blue eye

Working at both Columbia University and Harlem, she observed that there were twice as many patients at Harlem Hospital who suffer blindness or visual impairment than at Columbia. She did a retrospective epidemiological study, which documented that blindness among blacks was double that among whites. She concluded that this was because of the lack of access to ophthalmic care. Dr. Bath proposed a new discipline called Community Ophthalmology. 

“Community ophthalmology combines aspects of public health, community medicine, and clinical ophthalmology to offer primary care to under-served populations. Volunteers trained as eye workers visit senior centers and daycare programs to test vision and screen for cataracts, glaucoma, and other threatening eye conditions. This outreach has saved the sight of thousands whose problems would otherwise have gone undiagnosed and untreated.”

NiH.gov
old woman with her eyes closed

Harlem Hospital’s Eye Clinic did not perform eye surgery in 1968. She persuaded her professors at Columbia to operate on blind patients for free. She volunteered as an assistant surgeon. Thanks to Dr. Bath, they performed the first major eye operation at Harlem Hospital in 1970.

Believe in the power of truth… Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking. Remember that the limits of science are not the limits of imagination. 

Dr. Patricia E. Bath

Many Firsts 

In 1973, Bath became the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology.

In 1974 Bath became the first African American woman surgeon at UCLA Medical Center. And Charles R. Drew University appointed her an assistant professor of surgery. The next year she became the first woman faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. 

They offered her an office “in the basement next to the lab animals.” She refused the spot. “I didn’t say it was racist or sexist. I said it was inappropriate and succeeded in getting acceptable office space. I decided I was just going to do my work.” 

In 1983 she developed and chaired an ophthalmology residency training program. From 1983 to 1986, she was the first woman chair and first female program director of a postgraduate training program in the United States.

Taking it Abroad

After many incidents of racism and sexism at both UCLA and Drew, Dr Bath took her research abroad to Europe. Laser Medical Center of Berlin, West Germany, the Rothschild Eye Institute of Paris, France, and the Loughborough Institute of Technology, England accepted her work based on its merits.

AiPB

In 1977, she and three other colleagues founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. AiPB’s mission is to protect, preserve, and restore the gift of sight. The organization’s guiding principle is that eyesight is a basic human right and that primary eye care must be available to all people everywhere regardless of their economic status.

Inventor

In 1981, Dr. Bath had an idea for a new device and method to remove cataracts. It took nearly five years for her to complete the research, testing, and apply for a patent. The first African American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention, she received her first patent for her invention on May 17, 1988.

The laserphaco probe (1986) is use worldwide today. With this device, Dr. Bath performed surgery that recovered the sight of several individuals who had been blind for over 30 years.

Dr. Bath received five patents. She had two on her laserphaco probe. The others were:

https://youtu.be/JJg4zMxy42c Video & sound quality isn’t great

Dr Patricia Bath retired from the UCLA Medical Center in 1993. She died May 30, 2019.

A Remarkable Life

From a young girl growing up in Harlem, she dealt with relative poverty, sexism, racism, and a lack of role models. She didn’t know of any women physicians. Surgery was a male-dominated profession. Many medical schools and medical societies excluded all blacks. Yet, she persevered.

They inducted her into the International Women in Medicine Hall of Fame in 2001.

An Amazing Woman

Driven to help people, Dr. Patricia Bath accomplished many more things than I could cover in this brief article. See Wikipedia or Biography.com   An activist, a humanitarian, an inventor, a surgeon, she spent her life applying the principle that eyesight is a basic human right.

If you are interested in strong, extraordinary and ordinary women, check out these blog posts: 30 Amazing Women You Never Heard Of and Hoofing it for the Love of Books.

Dr. Patricia Bath was an amazing woman who helped the blind to see. Both literally and by her invention. Did you know about Dr. Bath before you read this article? Is there a woman you’d suggest I include in my exploration of extraordinary and ordinary women’s contributions to the world?

You Wouldn’t Be Here Without Them

As March, Women’s History Month, comes to a close in a few more days. Let’s take a moment to honor women of history one more time. Only this time we’re not talking about women who made notable history. We’re talking about the women who had the strength to get through the next day after the next. You wouldn’t be here without them.

What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.

– Jane Goodall

Who Were They?

It doesn’t matter that we know few if any of these names. They were mothers and grandmothers and aunts and cousins and sisters and daughters. Most of these women passed through the world with little fanfare.

Chinese woman: USMC Archives from Quantico, USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

What They Did

They may have invented new methods for their daily work. Perhaps they created art or stories or music. They did what they had to do, what needed to be done, and if they were lucky, a little of what they wanted to do. And while a son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter, may remember these things for a generation or two, they are mostly forgotten.

These are the women who changed the world. They are the women who nurtured and supported the folk who went on to do something notable. Something historic. But these women, the common women, they put their heads down and did the day-to-day work. They made a difference in the lives of their families and friends. And you wouldn’t be here without them.

Zanzibar woman Coutinho Bros. Studio [Public domain]

Why Did They?

What drove these women? Maybe it was intuition. Maybe they connected with Mother Earth. Maybe they believed in a Higher Being. We can’t know that. But we know they had compassion and love. We know they had the determination that they would get through this day and the next. If they only put one foot in front of the other each day, they made a difference in someone’s life.

Native American Woman, Lee Pickett [Public domain]

So take a moment before the month’s end and remember the forgotten women. Centuries of mothers and grandmothers and aunts and cousins and sisters and daughters walked through history before us. You wouldn’t be here without them.

30 Amazing Women You Never Heard Of

In four short weeks, I can’t begin to honor all the women who should be honored during Women’s History Month. But I’m fascinated to learn about women who’ve dared to be different or make a difference. Here are 30 amazing women you never heard of–at least not in school:


Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị 

1 – 43

Vietnam

Chose 36 women to be generals and successfully drove the Chinese out in 40 A.D. Trắc became queen, abolishing tribute taxes and attempted to revert back to a simpler government.


Hypatia of Alexandria

355 – 415

EGYPT

Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons

An unwed Pagan woman who taught astronomy and mathematics from her home and was a philosopher of the Neoplatonic school.


Fatima Al-Fihri

800 – 880

Kairouan, Abbasid Caliphate (Moracco)

Founded the world’s oldest continually operating, degree-granting university, the University of Al Qarawiyyin.


Tomoe Gozen

1157-1247

Japan

A legendary 12th century samurai warrior noted for being a skilled archer, often referred to as a “warrior worth a thousand.”


Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz 

1651–1695

Mexico

Credited as the first published feminist of the New World.


Sybil Ludington 

1761 – 1839

U.S.A.

Riding twice the distance, perhaps she should have been remembered in poem and song instead of Paul Revere.


Edmonia Lewis 

1844 – 1907

U.S.A.

African-American / Chippewa sculptor, who specialized in portrait busts of abolitionists and patrons.


Ada Lovelace 

1815 – 1852

Great Britain

Daughter of the poet Lord Byron who grew up to be the world’s first computer programmer.


Mary Edwards Walker 

1832 – 1919

U.S.A.

First female physician in the U.S. Army and the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.


Yaa Asantewaa 

1840-1921

Ashanti Empire (now part of Ghana)

Warrior queen who also happened to be a 60 year old grandmother when she began fighting British Colonialism.


Cathay Williams

1844-1868

U.S.A.

Image of Cathay Williams, female buffalo soldier, one of 30 amazing women you never heard of
Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons

First documented African-American woman to enlist and serve in the U.S. Army (disguised as a man).


Kate Sheppard 

1848-1934

New Zealand

A women’s rights activist in New Zealand who eventually led New Zealand to be the first country that gave women the right to vote.


Susanna Salter

1860-1961

U.S.A.

Elected first female U.S. Mayor (Yay, Kansas!)


Edith Cowan

1861-1932

Australia

The first woman elected to an Australian Parliament.


Ida B. Wells 

1862 – 1931 ‌

U.S.A.

The first African-American journalist.


Harriet Chalmers Adams 

1875 – 1937

U.S.A.

An American writer, explorer, and photographer.


Constance Kopp 

1877 – 1931 

U.S.A.

America’s first woman sheriff.


Huda Sha’arawi

1879-1947

Egypt

Founded Egypt’s first female-run philanthropic society, which offered services for impoverished women and children. Her most impactful event was in Cairo when she removed her veil in public.


Eliza Zamfirescu 

1887-1973

Romania

Recognized as the world’s first female engineer.


Bessie Coleman 

1892 – 1926

U.S.A.

The first black woman to earn her pilot’s license,


Katharine Blodgett

1898-1979   

U.S.A.

Invented non-glare glass as the first female engineer at General Electric’s research laboratory.


Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin 

1900 – 1979

U.S.A.

The first astronomer to discover that stars are made primarily of hydrogen and helium.


Virginia Hall 

1906-1982

U.S.A.

Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Called “The Limping Lady” due to her wooden leg she worked behind German lines for more than 30 years and was considered the “most dangerous of all allied spies” by the Germans.


Dorothy Vaughan 

1910 – 2008

U.S.A.

NASA’s first black manager. 


Daisy Bates

1914-1999

U.S.A.

Helped the Little Rock Nine—the nine black students she recruited to enroll at Central High School—enter their new school safely, despite being blocked by the Arkansas National Guard. 


Lyudmila Pavlichenko

1916-1974

Russia

Nicknamed “Lady Death,” she is the most successful female sniper in human history with 309 confirmed kills in WWII. 


Rose Marie McCoy 

1922 – 2015

U.S.A.

Wrote and/or collaborated on more than 850 songs for stars such as Big Maybelle, James Brown, Ruth Brown, Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Mathis, Bette Midler, Elvis Presley, and Ike and Tina Turner.


Alice Coachman

1922-2014

U.S.A.

At the 1948 London Olympics, won the high jump for the United States, becoming the first black woman to win an Olympic Gold medal. 


Stephanie Kwolek 

1923-2014

U.S.A.

Chemist who invented Kevlar, the material used in most bulletproof vests and body armor.


Women have been accomplishing firsts since time began and are often overlooked by history. Fortunately, the internet makes a lot of these women’s history more available to all of us. I hope you enjoyed this list of 30 amazing women you’ve never heard of. Or had you heard of one or two?

Hoofing it for the Love of Books

For $28 a month, these librarians loaded books and magazines into saddlebags or pillowcases. They climbed on a horse or mule and rode through the mountains of eastern Kentucky. This was the Packhorse Library project. They were hoofing it for the love of books, to help their community and combat illiteracy.

Packhorse Librarian on a mule surrounded by school children eager for books. Librarians were hoofing it for the love of books.
Packhorse Librarian, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The History of Horse & Books

May Stafford, a Kentuckian, raised money in 1913 to take books to rural people on horseback. That program lasted one year. Berea College sponsored a horse-drawn book wagon. The book wagon operated in the late teens and early 1920s. After that, the mountain people had no access to libraries and the books provided there.

The Great Depression began in 1929. There was no work. No money. The mountain people of eastern Kentucky suffered. By 1933 the unemployment rate in the Appalachians was 40%.

The New Deal

President Roosevelt’s New Deal created The Works Progress Administration (WPA). Its function was to create jobs for men (usually unskilled). The President’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, knew many women were the heads of households. She encouraged the creation of WPA projects that would benefit women and children. She knew women would respond best to projects that supported their community. Projects like the Packhorse Library.

With no money to feed the body, how could they feed the mind?

Eleanor Roosevelt

The Packhorse Library project began in 1934 in Leslie County Kentucky. They hired local women when they could. The mountain folk they would serve were suspicious of strangers. The WPA paid the librarians’ salaries only. The librarians provided their own horse or mule. Their library of books and magazines consisted of donations. 

A Tough Job

The librarians rode out twice a month. They covered 100-120 miles per week. It wasn’t easy. The areas they served had no paved or gravel roads. Cabins perched on the mountains side had no radio, no television, no newspaper, and no electricity. One librarian’s mule died. She finished eighteen miles of her route on foot. Bad weather and rocky terrain provided unending challenges. But the librarians had grit. They felt driven to provide their mountain people books. Books could give the destitute mountain people hope for the future.

To gain the trust of the people on her route, a librarian would ride in and read Bible passages aloud. This behavior engendered trust among people familiar with the oral tradition. 

The mountain people were hungry for news and learning. They burned costly oil so they could read after dark. The children cried out for books. Not a specific book. Any book. When the people couldn’t read, the librarians often read aloud to them.

Scrapbooks

When books and magazines wore out, the librarians cut the books and magazines up. They pasted articles, and recipes, and quilt patterns into scrapbooks. On their circuit, they’d collect local recipes and quilt patterns and add them to the handmade books. They’d swap scrapbooks with other counties and share the new books with the folks on their routes.

Line of women on horseback in front of a WPA library. They were hoofing it for the love of books as part of the Packhorse Library
Packhorse Librarians, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The Program Grew

The Packhorse Librarians served a 10,000-square-mile part of eastern Kentucky. The program hired nearly 1,000 librarians before it ended. More than 60,000 books circulated to an estimated 50,000 families, and 155 public schools.

Until the Funds Ran Out

Franklin Roosevelt ordered the end of the WPA in 1943. The new war effort was putting people back to work. The Packhorse Library and the librarians faded into history.

Thank you for joining me in celebrating Women’s History Month. Would you like to know more about the Packhorse Library project and the librarians who were hoofing it for the love of books? Check out these resources: the Smithsonian, NPR, Atlas Obscura, and Cleo Lampos’s site. Or read That Book Woman by Heather Henson and Down Cut Shin Creek by Kathi Applet and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer.