In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll be highlighting the stories of women in the United States who paved the way and inspired girls everywhere to follow their dreams.
Dr. Patricia Bath, an ophthalmologist and laser scientist, was not only the first female African-American doctor to patent a medical device, but also the first person to invent laserphaco cataract surgery that greatly advanced treatment for cataracts. In addition, Bath was the first African American to complete residency in ophthalmology, the first woman faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine’s Jules Stein Eye Institute, first women chair of ophthalmology in the United States and the first woman elected to the honorary staff of the UCLA Medical Center.
Bath was born in 1942 in Harlem, New York and first grew interested in science after receiving a chemistry set from her mother. At 16 years old, Bath attended the National Science Foundation’s cancer research workshop where she was awarded for her scientific findings. Graduating high school two years early, Bath received a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College and earned a medical degree from Howard University in 1968. During a fellowship at Columbia University, Bath discovered African Americans were two times more likely to develop blindness and eight times more likely to develop glaucoma, leading to the first creation of a community ophthalmology system that increased the eye care for people who could not afford it.
When Bath joined the faculty at the Department of Ophthalmology at the Jules Stein Eye Institute, her male colleagues, who were uncomfortable with a woman in their department, sat her near the female secretaries. “When I was offered an office not equivalent to that of my male colleagues, I could’ve started marching,” Bath said. “But I felt it was more important to focus on the prize.”
Shortly after, Bath founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness that was based on the foundation that eyesight was a basic human right. As the director of the organization, Bath traveled to several different countries to perform surgeries, teach medical techniques, donate equipment, lecture, and observe health services in industrial and developing countries.
Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe in 1981 which used lasers to treat cataracts more precisely and less painfully. The invention was able to recover vision for people who had been blind or vision impaired for decades. When Bath explained her invention to a director of a prominent institute, the director did not believe her. “There was not acceptance,” Bath said. “And in some instances there was anger that petit moi, little me, had indeed shattered the glass ceiling, had a scientific breakthrough, and he wouldn’t look me in the face.”
Bath retired in 1993 from UCLA Medical Center and was elected to the honorary medical staff. She was named “Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine” and one of the “women who changed the world” by Time. Bath was also inducted to the International Women in Medicine Hall of Fame. In 2009, President Barack Obama recognized her advocacy for the blind by appointing her to his commission for digital accessibility for the blind.
“I wasn’t seeking to be first,” Bath said. “I was just doing my thing, and I wanted to serve humanity along the way—to give the gift of sight.”
Media Resources: The Philadelphia Tribune 2/8/17; Elmwood City Ledger 2/13/19; Health Magazine 9/8/17; ABC News 2/26/18; Time