Ophthalmologist Patricia Bath’s life and career was full of firsts. She was the first Black woman to complete a residency in ophthalmology, and the first Black woman with a medical degree to receive a medical patent. She was the first ever president of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness — a group she co-founded, and the first woman to serve on faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles’s Jules Stein Eye Institute Department of Ophthalmology.

Although Dr Bath died in 2019, she continues to break glass ceilings and inspire the profession she helped shape. Most recently, The National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) has righted a decades-long wrong by, for the first time, inducting a Black woman — in fact, 2 Black women, Dr Bath, and Marian Croak, an instrumental engineer behind Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology which has made audio and video conferencing possible.1,2 

In honor of National Black History Month, here’s an overview of Dr Bath’s historic life and how she revolutionized cataract surgery and the discipline of ophthalmology as a whole.


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Physician, Inventor, Educator, Game Changer 

“To know that my mother is part of the 2022 class of National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees is an unbelievable honor,” her daughter, Dr Erika Bath said. “Her incredible career path – and her contributions to the study of ophthalmology, cannot be understated. The NIHF distinction is an overdue recognition of her accomplishments.”2  

In 1986, Dr Bath invented the laserphaco probe, a surgical tool for removing cataracts.1,2 The technique provided “more precise, less painful surgery to remove cataracts and restore eyesight,” Elizabeth Rogan, Chief Executive Officer of the Optical Society, told The Lancet.3

While this invention revolutionized cataract surgery, it was only 1 of several patents Dr Bath would eventually receive.

All indications are that Dr Bath was quite preoccupied with her work, once declaring that it actually took some time for her to realize that she was the first female ophthalmologist on UCLA’s faculty. “I was appointed to the faculty in 1974 and I didn’t realize for some years that I was the first woman ophthalmologist faculty member there,” she said in a 2011 interview presented at the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) meeting. “I was unaware of that distinction because I was so busy as a full time faculty member at 3 different institutions.”5

Formative Years

“Service to the underserved was a natural evolution of my life from my Harlem roots,” she told AAO attendees in 2011. “Growing up in Harlem, education was a priority in my family household also. One had to strive to do one’s very best. And, although we were a poor family, both of my parents worked and they both felt that education would be the ticket to success.”5

Dr Bath was also greatly inspired by Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., whom she met in 1963. “Because of his influence in my life and his dreams for the poor, I worked for the Poor People’s Campaign. In 1968 I organized medical students to volunteer health services during the Poor People’s Campaign in Resurrection City in 1968.”5,6

While interning at Harlem Hospital, Dr Bath observed that Black patients had a higher prevalence of blindness than White patients and this would compel her to provide care to impoverished communities throughout her career.3

“Although I chose a path in cornea and cataract surgery for my specialization, I could not help but be impacted by my observations of the prevalence of blindness among African Americans,” Dr Bath said.

In 1978, she put launched the Ophthalmic Assistant Training Program at UCLA, where graduates are specifically tasked with preventing blindness.2,8

Reimagining Ophthalmology

The National Inventors Hall of Fame is primarily celebrating the surgical equipment Dr Bath developed, namely the laserphaco probe, which made laser ablation of cataracts possible.7 But despite the technical prowess she demonstrated with her inventions, the innovation that Dr Bath voiced particular pride about was her effort to”invent a new discipline of medicine,” she said.5 That discipline was something she called “Community Ophthalmology.” The idea was to combine public health, community medicine and eye care screening in underserved communities.8,9 

To that end, she cofounded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, an organization dedicated to protecting, preserving and restoring eye sight.8 And since her development of Community Ophthalmology, programs around the world have developed, with groups such as the World Health Organization (WHO) advocating her approach.9

When contemplating her greatest accomplishments, Dr Bath said in her 2011 AAO interview, “Philosophically, I like to think that my greatest accomplishment has to be in those moments when I’ve helped someone regain eyesight, when I remove the patient’s patch and he starts with the big E and goes all the way down to the 20/20 line. But then I realize that many times you cannot be the surgeon for everyone who needs eye surgery, and that there are more people blinded by preventable causes and treatable causes than any given ophthalmologist could ever treat.”5 After considering the question a bit more, she added, “Well, maybe community ophthalmology.” 

Of her many successes, Dr Bath told Time magazine in 2017, “I was not seeking to be the first, I was only attempting to do my thing. It’s only when history looks back that you realize you were the first.”10

In May, Dr Bath will be honored at 2 ceremonies: an “Illumination Ceremony” at the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum in Alexandria, Virginia on May 4th, and the 2022 National Inventors Hall of Fame “Induction Ceremony” in Washington, DC on May 5th.7

References

  1. Patricia Bath. National Inventors Hall of Fame. https://www.invent.org/inductees/patricia-bath. Accessed February 8, 2022.
  2. Meet The First 2 Black Women To Be Inducted Into The National Inventors Hall Of Fame. National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/2021/09/27/1040795026/patricia-bath-marian-croak-national-inventors-hall-of-fame-first-black-women. Updated September 27, 2021. Accessed February 14, 2022.
  3. Green A. Patricia Bath. Lancet. 2019;394(10197):464. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736 (19)31684-8.
  4. Patents by Inventor Patricia E. Bath. Justia Patents. https://patents.justia.com/inventor/patricia-e-bath. Accessed February 21, 2022. 
  5. Conversation Between Patricia Bath, MD and Eve Higginbotham, MD Orlando FL, October 23, 2011. The Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology Museum of Vision & Ophthalmic Heritage. https://www.aao.org/Assets/faca82f2-d78e-4844-862e-171431aac204/636430635852570000/higginbotham-and-bath-pdf?inline=1  Accessed February 8, 2022. 
  6. Mazique EC. Health services and the poor people’s campaign. Journal of the National Medical Association. 1968;60(4): 332-3
  7. Pioneering Ophthalmologist Dr. Patricia Bath Makes History as One of The First Black Women to Be Inducted into The National Inventors Hall of Fame. PR News Wire. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/pioneering-ophthalmologist-dr-patricia-bath-makes-history-as-one-of-the-first-black-women-to-be-inducted-into-the-national-inventors-hall-of-fame-301381741.html. September 21, 2021. Accessed February 8, 2022. 
  8. Bath PE. Rationale for a program in community ophthalmology. J Natl Med Assoc. 1979;71:145-8. 
  9. Report of the eleventh meeting of the who programme advisory group on the prevention of blindness. World Health Organization. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/58888/WHO_PBL_95.51.pdf;jsessionid=87CF97C0749D5B4EF621CBCE47A0380F?sequence=1. March 3, 1995. Accessed February 23, 2022. 
  10. Patricia Bath On Being The First Person To Invent & Demonstrate Laserphaco Cataract Surgery. Time Magazine. October 30, 2017. Accessed February 23, 2022.