Patricia Bath MD, Inventor (1942 to Present)

Patricia Bath MD – Inventor of Laserphaco Probe – Photo credit: National Library of Medicine; www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine; Public Domain, Wikipedia Commons

 

Patricia Era Bath is an American ophthalmologist, inventor, and academic. She broke ground for women and African Americans in a number of areas. Bath was the first African American to serve as a resident in ophthalmology at New York University. She is also the first African American woman to serve on staff as a surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center. And finally, Bath is the first African-American woman physician to receive a patent for a medical purpose. The holder of four patents, she also founded the non-profit American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in Washington, D.C.

 

Dr. Bath was born on November 4, 1942, in Harlem, Manhattan. Her father, an immigrant from Trinidad, was newspaper columnist, a merchant seaman and the first African American to work for the New York City Subway as a motorman. Her father inspired her love for culture and encouraged Bath to explore different cultures. Her mother descended from African slaves. It was evident by Bath’s teachers that she was a gifted student and pushed her to explore her strengths in school in science. With the help of a microscope set she was given as a young child, Bath knew she had a love for math and science. Bath attended Charles Evans Hughes High School where she excelled at such a rapid pace that she obtained her diploma in just two and a half years.

 

Inspired by Albert Schweitzer’s work in medicine, Bath applied for and won a National Science Foundation Scholarship while attending high school; this led her to a research project at Yeshiva University and Harlem Hospital Center on connection between cancer, nutrition and stress which helped her interest in science shift to medicine. The head of the researched program realized the significance to her findings during the research and published them in a scientific paper that he later presented. In 1960, still a teenager, Bath won the “Merit Award” of Mademoiselle magazine for her contribution to the project. Bath received her Bachelor of Arts in chemistry from Manhattan’s Hunter College in 1964 and relocated to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University College of Medicine where she received her doctoral degree in 1968. During her time at Howard, she was President of the Student National Medical Association and received fellowships from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Mental Health.

 

Bath interned at Harlem Hospital Center, subsequently serving as a fellow at Columbia University. Bath traveled to Yugoslavia in 1967 to study children’s health which caused her to become aware that the practice of eye care was uneven among racial minorities and poor populations, with much higher incidence of blindness among her African American and poor patients. She determined that, as a physician, she would help address this issue. It was also not easy for her to go to medical school since her family did not have the funds for it. She persuaded her professors from Columbia to operate on blind patients at Harlem Hospital Center, which had not previously offered eye surgery, at no cost. Bath pioneered the worldwide discipline of “community ophthalmology”, a volunteer-based outreach to bring necessary eye care to underserved populations.

 

After completing her education, Bath served briefly as an assistant professor at Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science before becoming the first woman on faculty at the Eye Institute. In 1978, Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, for which she served as president. In 1983, she became the head of a residency in her field at Charles R. Drew, the first woman ever to head such a department. In 1993, she retired from UCLA, which subsequently elected her the first woman on its honorary staff. She served as a professor of Ophthalmology at Howard University’s School of Medicine and as a professor of Telemedicine and Ophthalmology at St. Georges University. She was among the co-founders of the King-Drew Medical Center ophthalmology training program.

 

In 1981, she conceived the Laserphaco Probe, a medical device that improves on the use of lasers to remove cataracts, and “for ablating and removing cataract lenses”. The device was completed in 1986 after Bath conducted research on lasers in Berlin and patented in 1988, making her the first African-American woman to receive a patent for a medical purpose. The device, which quickly and nearly painlessly dissolves the cataract with a laser, irrigates and cleans the eye and permits the easy insertion of a new lens, is used internationally to treat the disease. Bath has continued to improve the device and has successfully restored vision to people who have been unable to see for decades. Three of Bath’s four patents relate to the Laserphaco Probe. In 2000, she was granted a patent for a method she devised for using ultrasound technology to treat cataracts. Bath has been honored by two of her universities. Hunter College placed her in its “hall of fame” in 1988 and Howard University declared her a “Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine” in 1993. A children’s picture book on her life and science work, The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath (The Innovation Press, ISBN 9781943147311) was published in 2017, and was cited by both the National Science Teachers Association and the Chicago Public Library’s list of best kids books of the year.

 

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