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.
My love of humanity and passion for helping others inspired me to become a physician.Dr. Patricia Bath
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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
- “Laser apparatus for surgery of cataractous lenses” (1999): Another laser apparatus, this invention provided a way to remove cataracts by making a micro-incision and applying radiation.
- “Pulsed ultrasound method for fragmenting/emulsifying and removing cataractous lenses” (2000): This invention uses ultrasonic energy to remove cataracts.
- “Combination ultrasound and laser method and apparatus for removing cataract lenses” (2003): A synthesis of Bath’s two previous inventions, this one uses both ultrasonic energy and laser radiation for even more precise removal of cataracts. The invention also includes a unique “optical fiber delivery system” for the transmission of the ultrasonic vibrations and radiation.
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?
I had never heard of Dr. Bath. Surprising, given her many accomplishments! Thanks for sharing!
Neither had I, Jennette. I learned about her in a recent tweet. She should be in the history books. She should have been in my medical/nursing books. Such an inspiration.