Fearless Females: Dr. Patricia Bath

This was supposed to be posted in December. Whoopsie.

Dr. Patricia Bath was a woman of many firsts:

  • The first Black person to complete a residency in ophthalmology.
  • The first female faculty member and first female chair in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute.
  • The first Black female doctor to receive a medical patent.
  • Founder of the field of “community ophthalmology.”

Born in Harlem, New York, on Nov. 4, 1942, there was little about Patricia Bath’s early life to portend her future greatness. Her father, Rupert, was an immigrant from Trinidad and the first Black subway motorman in New York City, and her mother, Gladys, who was descendant from both the Cherokee Tribe and African slaves, was a domestic worker.

Despite their humble circumstances, the Baths encouraged their daughter’s natural curiosity and intelligence, which later proved to be early signs of genius. When, inspired by newspaper articles on Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s work with lepers in Africa, she expressed an interest in medicine, her mother bought her a chemistry set. Her father stoked her wanderlust through stories of his time in the Merchant Marines.

Patricia flourished in school. At the age of 16, she was one of a handful of students to attend a National Science Foundation cancer research workshop. In just three months of study on the effects of streptomycin residue on bacteria, she discovered that cancer was a catabolic disease and tumor growth was a symptom. She also calculated an equation to predict cancer cell growth. Her discoveries were so impressive that Dr. Robert Bernard, head of the program, included her findings in a scientific paper he presented at a conference. As a result, she made the front page of the New York Times and won the Mademoiselle magazine Merit Award in 1960.

Patricia graduated high school in two years and went on to Hunter College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964. Having decided to devote her life to medicine, she then attended Howard University and she graduated with honors in 1968. After an internship at Harlem Hospital—where she convinced her professors to perform eye surgery on blind patients for free—she completed a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University.

In 1973, Dr. Bath became the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology. Now married with a daughter, she completed a second fellowship in corneal transplantation and keratoprosthesis (replacing a human cornea with an artificial one).

By contrasting her patient’s experiences at the mostly Black, lower income Harlem Hospital and the mostly white, wealthier Columbia University, Dr. Bath found that Black people were twice as likely to suffer from blindness than other patients and eight times more likely to develop glaucoma.

Concerned and knowing that many Black people could not afford treatment for such conditions, she developed “community ophthalmology.” This new specialty focused on helping underserved populations by using volunteers trained in basic eye screenings and tests who went to senior centers and daycares to test vision.

Dr. Bath moved to California in 1974 to work as an assistant professor of surgery at both Charles R. Drew University and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1975, she became the first female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. With this honor came an office “in the basement next to the lab animals,” which she refused to use. “I didn’t say it was racist or sexist,” she explained. “I said it was inappropriate and succeeded in getting acceptable office space. I decided I was just going to [ignore the hate and] do my work.” Much of her research was conducted in places like Berlin, Paris and Loughborough, England, where her race and sex didn’t matter.

In 1976, Dr. Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which established that “eyesight is a basic human right.” Likely remembering her well-traveled father, she lectured and performed surgery all over the world as part of this program, trying to bridge the gap between care provided in industrial and developing nations.

In 1981, she began working on her most well-known invention: the Laserphaco Probe. Using a laser, the device created a less painful and more precise treatment of cataracts that removed the cataract more easily and made it easier to insert a new lens. She received a patent for the device in 1988, becoming the first Black female doctor to receive a U.S. patent for a medical purpose. She also holds patents in Japan, Canada and Europe. Using this device, she was able to help people see who had been blind for more than 30 years.

In 1983, while working on her laser, Dr. Bath helped create the Ophthalmology Residency Training program at UCLA-Drew, which she also chaired—the first woman in the country to do so.

Dr. Bath retired from her position at the UCLA Medical Center in 1993. That same year, she was named a “Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine.”

Dr. Bath was an early advocate of telemedicine, the use of technology to provide medical services in remote areas. She went on to hold positions in telemedicine at Howard University and St. George’s University in Grenada.

Patricia died on May 30, 2019, from complications related to cancer at the age of 76.

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