February 07, 2011

Feb 7 – Dr. Patricia Bath: Helping the World to See More Clearly

Dr. Patricia Bath

On Saturday, I received a reminder in the mail that I was due for my annual eye exam. I have worn glasses and contact lenses for years, but thankfully, my eyesight is not too bad.  Of course, that is not the case for millions around the world. Many of them have Dr. Patricia Bath to thank for helping to improve their vision.

Dr. Patricia Bath was the first African-American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose: a Cataract Laserphaco Probe, which enabled surgeons to remove cataract lenses more accurately and painlessly, using a laser, rather than the previously traditional method of using a ‘grinding, drill-like device’.

Born in Harlem, New York, in 1942, the daughter of a merchant seaman (as well as the first Black motorman for the New York City Subway and a newspaper columnist) and a housekeeper, Patricia’s love of knowledge was strongly encouraged by her well-educated parents, and her mother purchased her first chemistry set.

Continuing to excel in science, Patricia became the editor of her high school’s science paper and won many science awards. At the age of 16, she won a place at a summer program offered by the National Science Foundation at Yeshiva University, in New York. While there, young Patricia created a math equation for predicting cancer cell growth, which her mentor, Dr. Robert Bernard, incorporated into a paper he presented at an international conference in Washington, DC, in 1960. That same year, Patricia won a merit award from Mademoiselle magazine and managed to graduate from high school within two-and-a-half years.

Patricia won many more academic scholarships, earning a B.A. degree in Chemistry and Physics, from Hunter College, in New York and a Medical Degree from Howard University School of Medicine, in Washington, DC. In 1968, Dr. Bath became an intern at Harlem Hospital, followed by a Fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. Dr. Bath began noticing that blindness amongst Black patients was double that of White patients, due to the disparity of access to ophthalmic care. With a desire to improve the imbalance, Dr. Bath set up Community Ophthalmology, where volunteers, who were trained in eye care, visited community centers for children, adults and seniors to test vision and screen for eye problems, such as cataracts and glaucoma. This system significantly reduced the incidence of eye disease and blindness in the African-American community, and is now practiced around the world.

Dr. Bath became the first African-American resident at New York University, where she finished her medical training in corneal and keratoporosthesis surgery. In 1974, she moved to Los Angeles to join the UCLA faculty and to be an assistant professor of surgery and ophthalmology at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. In 1975, Dr. Bath became the first African-American woman surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center and the first woman faculty member at the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute.  

Dr. Bath performing surgery

In 1977, Dr. Bath and three other colleagues founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AIPB), a non-profit organization whose mission is: ”to protect, preserve, and restore the gift of sight.” 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.

In 1981, Dr. Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe for cataract surgery. Because it was such an advanced form of cataract surgery, it took several years for her to perfect it and apply for a patent, which she received in 1988. She also holds patents for the invention in Japan, Canada and most countries in Europe.  

Dr. Bath's Cataract Laserphaco Probe Patent
Dr. Bath's Subsequent Cataract Laser Patent

By 1983, Dr. Bath had become chair of the Ophthalmology Residency Training Program, which she co-founded at Drew-UCLA Universities, becoming the first woman in the United States to hold this role. Following this role, Dr. Bath conducted research at Laser Medical Center of Berlin, West Germany, the Rothschild Eye Institute of Paris, France, and the Loughborough Institute of Technology in Loughborough, England.

Dr. Bath was elected to the Hunter College Hall of Fame in 1988 and named Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine in 1993. In that same year, she retired from UCLA Medical Center and became the first woman to be elected to the Center's honorary medical staff.  Dr. Bath subsequently became an advocate of telemedicine, the use of electronic communication to provide medical services to remote areas where health care is limited.

Dr. Bath has achieved so much, for which millions can be thankful. However, it was certainly not an easy beginning for her. Quoted in a 2005 article, she said of her early pursuit, “Sexism, racism and relative poverty were the obstacles which I faced as a young girl growing up in Harlem. There were no women physicians I knew of, and surgery was a male-dominated profession. No high schools existed in Harlem…and Blacks were excluded from numerous medical schools and medical societies. [Finally], my family did not possess the funds to send me to medical school.”

Continuing to direct the AIPB, Dr. Bath dedicates her time to her lifelong passion for the prevention, treatment and cure of blindness.

Dr. Bath at home

Sources: MIT, Inventors.About.com, Black-Inventors.Com, Wikipedia, Google Images


  1. I have been browsing online more than 3 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It’s pretty worth enough for me. In my view, if all site owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the internet will be much more useful than ever before.
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  2. Thank you for finding this information.

  3. Can't believe I sat with this awesome women face to face in 1974 in Harlem. I didn't know how powerful she was. Thank you.