To celebrate Black History Month, this edition of “Learning from InvENtors” is highlighting Dr. Patricia Bath.
Dr. Bath is the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology and the first African-American female doctor to receive a medical patent. She invented the Laserphaco Probe for cataract treatment in 1986.
Patricia Era Bath was born on November 4, 1942, in Harlem, New York, to Rupert Bath, the first black motorman for the New York City subway system, and Gladys Bath, a housewife and domestic worker who used her salary to save money for her children’s education. Bath was encouraged by her family to pursue academic interests. Her father, a former Merchant Marine and an occasional newspaper columnist, taught Bath about the wonders of travel and the value of exploring new cultures. Her mother piqued the young girl’s interest in science by buying her a chemistry set.
With the help of a microscope from that chemistry set, Bath knew she had a love for math and science. When she learned about Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s service to lepers in the Congo, Bath knew she wanted to dedicate her life to medicine. Bath attended Charles Evans Hughes High School where she excelled at such a rapid pace causing her to get a diploma in just two and a half years.
At the age of 16, Bath became one of only a few students to attend a cancer research workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The program head, Dr. Robert Bernard, was so impressed with Bath’s discoveries during the project that he incorporated her findings in a scientific paper he presented at a conference. The publicity surrounding her discoveries earned Bath the Mademoiselle magazine’s Merit Award in 1960.
After graduating from high school, Bath headed to Hunter College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964. She then attended Howard University to pursue a medical degree. Bath graduated with honors from Howard in 1968, and accepted an internship at Harlem Hospital shortly afterward, from 1968 to 1969. The following year, she began pursuing a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University.
As a young intern shuttling between Harlem Hospital and Columbia University, Bath was quick to observe that at the eye clinic in Harlem half the patients were blind or visually impaired. At the eye clinic at Columbia, by contrast, there were very few obviously blind patients. This observation led her to conduct a retrospective epidemiological study, which documented that blindness among blacks was double that among whites. She reached the conclusion that the high prevalence of blindness among blacks was due to lack of access of ophthalmic care.
As a result, she proposed a new discipline, known as community ophthalmology, which is now operative worldwide. 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. By identifying children who need eyeglasses, the volunteers give these children a better chance for success in school.
Bath was also instrumental in bringing ophthalmic surgical services to Harlem Hospital’s Eye Clinic, which did not perform eye surgery in 1968. She persuaded her professors at Columbia to operate on blind patients for free, and she volunteered as an assistant surgeon. The first major eye operation at Harlem Hospital was performed in 1970 as a result of her efforts.
Pioneer in Ophthalmology
Following her fellowship, Dr. Bath completed her training at New York University between 1970 and 1973, where she was the first African American resident in ophthalmology. Bath married and had a daughter, Eraka, born in 1972. While motherhood became her priority, she also managed to complete a fellowship in corneal transplantation and keratoprosthesis (replacing the human cornea with an artificial one).
In 1974, Bath joined the faculty of UCLA and Charles R. Drew University as an assistant professor of surgery (Drew) and ophthalmology (UCLA). The following year she became the first woman faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute.
As she notes, when she became the first woman faculty in the department, she was offered 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.”
By 1983, she was chair of the ophthalmology residency training program at Drew-UCLA, the first woman in the USA to hold such a position.
Despite university policies extolling equality and condemning discrimination, Professor Bath experienced numerous instances of sexism and racism throughout her tenure at both UCLA and Drew. Determined that her research not be obstructed by the “glass ceilings,” she took her research abroad to Europe. Free from the toxic constraints of sexism and racism her research was accepted on its merits at the Laser Medical Center of Berlin, West Germany, the Rothschild Eye Institute of Paris, France, and the Loughborough Institute of Technology, England. At those institutions she achieved her “personal best” in research and laser science, the fruits of which are evidenced by her laser patents on eye surgery.
Bath’s work and interests, however, have always gone beyond the confines of a university. In 1976, Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AIPB), an organization whose mission is to protect, preserve, and restore the gift of sight. The AIPB is based on the principle that eyesight is a basic human right and that primary eye care must be made available to all people, everywhere, regardless of their economic status. Much of the work of the AIPB is done though ophthalmic assistants, who are trained in programs at major universities. The institute supports global initiatives to provide newborn infants with protective anti-infection eye drops, to ensure that children who are malnourished receive vitamin A supplements essential for vision, and to vaccinate children against diseases (such as measles) that can lead to blindness.
By 1983, Bath had helped create the Ophthalmology Residency Training program at UCLA-Drew, which she also chaired—becoming, in addition to her other firsts, the first woman in the nation to hold such a position.
Inventing the Laserphaco Probe
Dr. Bath is also a laser scientist and inventor. Her interest, experience, and research on cataracts lead to her invention of a new device and method to remove cataracts—the laserphaco probe.
When she first conceived of the device in 1981, her idea was more advanced than the technology available at the time. It took her nearly five years to complete the research and testing needed to make it work and apply for a patent. Today the device is use worldwide.
Harnessing laser technology, the device created a less painful and more precise treatment of cataracts. She received a patent for the device in 1988, becoming the first African-American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose. (She also holds patents in Japan, Canada and Europe.)
The device — which quickly and nearly painlessly dissolves the cataract with a laser, irrigates and cleans the eye and permits the easy insertion of a new lens — is used internationally to treat the disease.
Three of Bath’s four patents relate to the Laserphaco Probe. In 2000, she was granted a patent for a method she devised for using ultrasound technology to treat cataracts.
In 1993, Bath retired from her position at the UCLA Medical Center and became an honorary member of its medical staff. That same year, she was named a “Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine.”
Among her many roles in the medical field, Bath is a strong advocate of telemedicine, which uses technology to provide medical services in remote areas.
Dr. Bath’s greatest passion, however, continues to be fighting blindness. Her “personal best moment” occurred on a humanitarian mission to North Africa, when she restored the sight of a woman who had been blind for thirty years by implanting a keratoprosthesis.
“The ability to restore sight is the ultimate reward,” she says.
Dr. Bath knew her calling at a very early age and never let challenges such as lack of technology, adversity and sexism stand in her way. We hope you were inspired by her story!