“Believe in the power of truth… Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking. Remember that the limits of science are not the limits of imagination.”
–Dr. Patricia E. Bath
Dr. Patricia Bath is world renowned for her advancements in ophthalmology. Through her continuous fortitude and independent thinking she has solved complex problems and made tremendous advancements in medicine along the way.
Patricia was born in Harlem, NY in 1942. As a young girl her parents, Rupert and Gladys, exposed her to many things that piqued her interest and subsequently influenced many of her accomplishments in her life. Her father was an immigrant from Trinidad who had a multifaceted career as a merchant seaman, newspaper columnist and as the first black motorman for the New York subway system. Stories as of his world travels as a merchant seaman inspired Patricia to see the world. Her mother, a homemaker, encouraged Patricia and her older brother to read and bought Patricia her first chemistry set. As a result, Patricia developed a love of science at an early age.
In 1959, she became widely noticed for her aptitude in science while at a selective summer program at Yeshiva University sponsored by the National Science Foundation. In this program she conducted cancer research and, at the end of her program, she remarkably created a mathematical equation that could predict the growth rate of cancer. As a result of this, in 1960she was honored by Mademoiselle magazine with a Merit Award given to only 10 outstanding young women throughout the country.
Her accomplishments as a teenager were just a preface to what was to come. She graduated from high school in just two and a half years, then received her bachelor’s degree from Hunter College in New York, then enrolled into Howard University School of Medicine. While at Howard, she had the opportunity to travel abroad for the first time when she traveled to Yugoslavia to conduct pediatrics research while on a government fellowship. This would be the first of several international trips she would take for research and practice throughout her career. After graduating from Howard, she headed back to New York where she conducted specialized training at New York University and Columbia University. As an intern, she noticed significant disparities while going back and forth between Columbia and Harlem Hospital. In Harlem Hospital she saw significantly more cases of blindness and visual impairment than at Columbia. Through research she concluded that blindness was twice as prevalent in blacks than the general population primarily due to lack of care and resources. This prompted her to promote Community Ophthalmology, which would bring volunteers to communities to detect and treat eye diseases like glaucoma and cataracts. She also convinced her professors at Columbia to perform eye surgery on blind patients in Harlem for free. And, in 1970, the first major eye surgery at Harlem Hospital was done because of her initiative.
Moving to California in 1975 prompted a series of firsts for Patricia. She became the first female faculty member of the Jules Stein Eye Institute at the UCLA Medical Center as well as the first African American woman surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center. In 1977, she helped found the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, whose focus was on protecting, restoring and preserving sight. She was the first president of this Institute, and Patricia traveled the world to impoverish areas that did not have the resources to provide quality eye care. By the 1980s Patricia was working on her invention. Up to this point, cataract treatment was very painful. In 1988 she became the first African American female doctor to receive a patent for her Cataract Laserphaco Probe, a painless and more accurate way to remove cataract lenses with a laser device. Through this invention, Dr. Bath has restored the sight of people who had been blinded by cataracts for 30 years and has revolutionized the industry.
Dr. Patricia Bath is an inventor, pioneer, and compassionate global advocate for the vision impaired. The words “this has never been done before” did not discourage Patricia, but yet inspired her to make a groundbreaking impact in medicine. Though we hope we never have a first-hand experience with her invention, it is comforting to know that, because of her, we may have the gift of sight if we do.