Patricia Bath Revolutionizes Eye Surgery

Image Source: Multnomah County Library

Born in Harlem, New York City, New York, Patricia Bath was the only child of parents who not only knew how to succeed but also instilled in her this fighting spirit. There are some sources that say Bath had a brother, but no name has ever been given, nor has anyone stated anything beyond,

Bath’s father, Rupert, was an immigrant from Trinidad and a merchant marine, as well as an occasional newspaper columnist. What Rupert’s best known for, though, is for being the first black motorman for the New York City subway. Patricia’s mother, Gladys, had in her life a sense of an indomitable spirit, being the daughter of former slaves. Gladys chose to be a homemaker, however, she later took a job as a housecleaner to help pay her daughter’s way through college.

Patricia Bath
Patricia Bath Photo Credit: CF Medicine

At the time Bath was considering a career in the medical field, there were no black or female doctors for her to emulate. However, in interviews, she readily admits she admired Dr. Albert Schweitzer for not just his medical prowess but also for his humanitarianism in treating the sick in Africa. Because of this, Bath committed herself to inserting social consciousness into whatever career she pursued.

Bath’s parents never forced gender roles on their children, buying her a chemistry set at a young age, which gave her hours of pleasure. She said, in an interview with Time, she would play “Doctor/Nurse” and would never want to be the nurse. She went on to say, “I have to thank my parents for having a gender-open household, for not setting limits.

Having always had a love for chemistry and biology, excelling in every class, so much so, she completed high school in two and a half years, allowing her to pursue higher education. Even as a teenager, at the tender age of 17, Bath was already making a splash in the medical and scientific community, winning awards and co-authoring numerous articles, most specifically, one focused on the correlation between cancer, nutrition, and stress. In 1960, Bath enrolled in Hunter College, where she earned her B.A. in Chemistry and Physics, then attended Howard University College in Washington D.C. from which she earned her medical degree. Following this, Bath completed an internship at Harlem Hospital and a fellowship at Columbia University. This was followed by her attending New York University as the first African American resident to attend and complete the Ophthalmology program.

While a resident at the Harlem Hospital, Bath came to realize their African American patients were twice as likely to suffer visual impairment or blindness as their white counterparts. She conducted a study and concluded this was the result of lack of access to ophthalmic care, thus leading her to establish a new method of care, “Community Ophthalmology,” now practiced worldwide.

Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards - 2012 Tribeca Film Festival
NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 27: Dr. Patricia Bath of Laserphaco attends the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival at the NYU Paulson Auditorium on April 27, 2012 in New York City. Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

With all these firsts for Bath, it was while on staff at the UCLA Medical Center & School she developed the Laserphaco Probe, which allows for the safe removal of cataracts and insertion of a new eye lens. While there were other methods prior to this, they were invasive and risky. With Bath’s invention, people could now be treated for cataracts quickly and safely, with little to no risk to them or their eyesight.

Bath still works in the ophthalmology field but is now more focused on the philanthropic side of it. In conjunction with J. Alfred Cannon, MD, MPH, and Aaron Ifekwunigwe, MD, MPH, FRCP, Bath helped found the non-profit American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AiPb), an organization committed to restoring sight to those who are visually impaired or without vision.

Bath is often told of her “firsts”, such as the development and patent of laser surgery for eyes and completing the ophthalmology program to become a doctor. But, she’s humble about it, to be sure.

Sometimes even now when I’m told I was a “first,” it comes as a surprise, because it’s only through history that you understand that kind of thing. I didn’t realize when I joined UCLA in 1974 that I was the first woman in the ophthalmology department. I simply wanted to be part of a great team at an incredible facility. I wasn’t seeking to be first. I was just doing my thing, and I wanted to serve humanity along the way—to give the gift of sight. –Patricia E. Bath, M.D.

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