Patricia E. Bath
This month is Black History Month and I am so excited to share about this phenomenal woman I learned about from the podcast called Encyclopedia Womannica. I have been a listener and subscriber for a long time now, at least 2 years, and every day I learn about some incredible woman and what she has done in the world. Well, this time the woman was Patricia E. Bath. Much like our US Vice President, Kamala Harris, Bath, was the first in many categories. Let me list them for you:
1. The first African-American to complete a residency in ophthalmology
2. the first Black woman to receive a medical patent
3. The first American woman to be named a chair of ophthalmology.
Bath’s Early Years
Obviously, being the first to open the door is no joke and I can imagine that it took a lot of courage, strength and tenacity to get there. But Bath also got her grit from her parents as well. She was born in Harlem in 1942. Her father was the first Black motorman for the New York City subway system; and her mother was a domestic worker. Both of her parents supported her curiosity about the world and interest in science. Her dad was a world traveler during his days as a merchant marine, which gave him colorful stories to share with his family. Bath was particularly intrigued with the story of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a medical missionary, who dedicated his life to treating leprosy in the Congo. Her mother’s contribution was using the earnings from her job to purchase Bath’s first chemistry set.
In high school she was one of a few students selected to attend a cancer research workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The head of the workshop was so impressed, he included her findings in a paper he presented at a conference. Bath completed high school in two years, and went straight to Hunter College where she graduated in 1964. Next, she attended Howard Medical School in Washington, D.C.
Bath Notices Differences in Care Between Blacks and Whites
Finished with her degrees, Bath accepted an internship back home, at Harlem Hospital. The succeeding year, she also began pursuing a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. While traveling between the hospital and the university, Bath noticed a stark difference in the number of blind or visually impaired patients at Harlem’s eye clinic compared to Columbia’s despite how close the two facilities were located to each other. The one notable difference was that Harlem’s patients were largely Black while Columbia’s were mainly white.
Drawing from her childhood curiosity, Bath led a retrospective epidemiological study. She found that blindness among the Black community was double that of whites. She concluded that high rates of blindness among African-Americans was largely due to the lack of access to care. She convinced physicians to offer surgeries at the Harlem clinic. And she proposed a new discipline called community ophthalmology. This new discipline combines elements of public health, community medicine and clinical ophthalmology to support underserved communities. Screenings were done for eye threatening conditions like glaucoma and cataracts. Volunteers were sent to senior centers and daycare facilities in the community. Children in need of glasses were identified early, giving them a better chance at school success. This discipline is still practiced worldwide today.
Bath Breaks Race and Gender Barriers
Bath began the final stage of her training at New York University In 1970. She broke a racial barrier by becoming the first African-American ophthalmology resident in American history. Shortly afterward she married a fellow physician and they had a daughter. A couple of years later Bath and her family relocated out west to California where she broke another barrier by becoming the first woman faculty member in UCLA’s Ophthalmology department. When she was hired, she was offered an office in the basement next to the lab animals. Instead of accusing her employer of discrimination Bath worked on getting more appropriate office space. By 1983, Bath was the chair of the department, and breaking yet another barrier by becoming the first woman in the US to hold that position.
Bath Invents Device to Remove cataracts
Bath believed that eyesight was a human right so in 1977, she and several colleagues created the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. They traveled around the world training volunteers, teaching, speaking and experiencing different cultures. During her travels, the most common cause of blindness she saw was cataracts. So, she decided to do something about it and in 1981 she invented a new device and method for treatment called the laserphaco probe. The probe is a fiber optic laser surrounded by irrigation and suction tubes. It lets surgeons to remove cataracts in a matter of minutes. Not only was the process quickly sped up, but it minimized the patient’s pain.
During this time, Bath’s concept outpaced current technology. She spent almost five years conducting research, trials and development work. In 1988, Bath broke another barrier becoming the first Black woman doctor to receive a patent. Today, the probe is frequently used around the world, and revolutionized the way cataracts are treated. Bath used her device personally restoring vision to several people who’d been blind for over 30 years. But in 1993, she retired from her position at UCLA to focus on telemedicine. She held positions in telemedicine at her alma mater, Howard University, and at St. George’s University in Grenada. In 2001, she was appointed to the International Women in Medicine Hall of Fame. Bath died on May 30, 2019, from complications with cancer. She was 76 years old.