In recognition of the contributions that blacks have made throughout history to various fields including commerce, science, medicine, education, and politics, IWF will feature short profiles of pioneering women for Black History Month.
Dr. Bath was a pioneering ophthalmologist and laser scientist. She engaged in innovative research and advocated for blindness prevention, treatment, and cure.
Bath became the first African-American female doctor to receive a medical patent for a treatment for cataracts by laser. During her career she accomplished many other firsts, paving the way for women and blacks in a male-dominated industry. Yet, according to her “the ability to restore sight is the ultimate reward.”
Over her career, she has not only restored sight to the blind but given future doctors a vision of what’s possible.
A budding scientist from humble beginnings
Patricia Bath was born in Harlem, New York City in 1942. Her father worked in the city subway system and was the first Black motorman. Her mother was a housewife and domestic worker who saved her money to fund her children’s education.
Bath’s mother purchased a chemistry set for her which piqued her interest in science and seeded her future career. Bath told Time magazine in 2017:
I wanted to pretend-play and model myself after scientists. When we would play nurse and doctor, I didn’t want to be forced to play the role of the nurse. I wanted to be the one with the stethoscope, the one who gave the injections, the one in charge.
Bath developed an aptitude for science and won a highly competitive National Science Foundation scholarship as a teenager. The discoveries she made in her research were so impressive that the program head incorporated her findings in a scientific paper he presented at a conference.
Bath attended college and then earned a medical degree from Howard University. She faced many challenges in pursuing her education at that time.
… blacks were excluded from numerous medical schools and medical societies; and, my family did not possess the funds to send me to medical school.”
She explained that her mother scrubbed floors so she could afford medical school.
After medical school, Dr. Bath began a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University while working in a New York City hospital. In her work, she discovered that Black patients were twice as likely to suffer from blindness and a whopping eight times more likely to develop glaucoma than white patients. The problem called for prevention through early detection and treatment.
Bath established a community program to tackle this problem. In 1977, with colleagues, she founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness to protect, preserve, and restore the gift of sight.
Later Bath went on to teach and lead ophthalmology programs at the University of California Los Angeles achieving discoveries that, unfortunately, her colleagues at the liberal university questioned and denied. At one point, she moved over overseas where her research was accepted based on merit.
Dr. Patricia Bath spoke to Good Morning America in 2018, a year before she passed away, about overcoming segregation, racism, and other forms of discrimination in her career.
I had a few obstacles but I had to shake it off.
… keep your eyes focused on the prize, it’s just like Dr. Martin Luther King said, so that’s what I did.
Dr. Bath was also an inventor. In 1988, her research on cataracts led her to develop a new device and method to remove cataracts, the Laserphaco Probe )short for laser photoablative cataract surgery). By using lasers to dissolve cataracts, Bath developed a less painful cataract treatment that restored the sight of many people who had been blind for decades. Bath is recognized as the first Black female doctor to receive a medical patent.
An unassuming leader
After retiring from UCLA, Dr. Bath continued her work here and abroad. While she stayed out of the limelight, she served as a role model for many women in medicine. Her daughter, Eraka Bath, remarked about her:
She wore sneakers and jeans … she was casual and not pretentious. She came from humble roots.
Inspiring future scientists is a role Bath seemed to enjoy:
I realize that when I achieve these things it helps what other women, and other people of color, black women, can do. But keep in mind: I never had any doubts.