Blindness To Bias Let Dr. Patricia Bath Give The Gift Of Sight
While a young girl, Dr. Patricia Bath spotted a glimpse of her future while playing with the chemistry set her mother bought her.
Peering through those test tubes, Bath (1942-2019) saw opportunity well beyond stereotypes for a young African American girl growing up in Harlem during the 1940s. Science called her. Forget that men dominated the field at the time. Her blindness to racial and gender norms would literally help others to see again.
“I was always a curious child,” Bath, a pioneering ophthalmologist, laser scientist, inventor and leader in the quest to fight blindness, told Time magazine in its “Time Firsts: Women Leaders Who Are Changing The World” series in 2017.
“I was given a chemistry set with a microscope, and I wanted to pretend-play and model myself after scientists,” she said. And she wanted “to be the one with the stethoscope, the one who gave the injections, the one in charge.”
She broke new ground in treating and preventing blindness. And she brought vision care to underserved populations and minorities. Over the course of her career, Bath’s discoveries restored vision to millions.
Most notably, in 1986 Bath revolutionized cataract surgery. Her invention of a device and method — the Laserphaco Probe — used lasers to perform minimally invasive cataract surgery. Two years later, in 1988, Bath earned a patent for the device. She became the first Black female doctor to receive a medical patent. And that was just the first of eight patents in her career.
Bath also cofounded the American Institute for The Prevention of Blindness in 1976. It’s a nonprofit organization that calls eyesight “a basic human right.” It works to make primary eye care available to everyone — no matter their economic status.
“Persistence and perseverance,” gave Patricia Bath the strength to reach goals, even if others pushed against her, said her daughter Dr. Eraka Bath, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. “She believed in not having limits to the imagination and the notion of rejecting majority thinking.”
Ignoring society’s limits was critical. Bath didn’t get opportunities handed to her. She was born in New York City in 1942 and grew up in Harlem. But she kept a mantra playing in her mind to keep pushing: “Hard work, believing in yourself, follow(ing) your dreams and (not letting) your mind be limited by majority thinking gives you infinite possibilities to achieve,” Eraka Bath told IBD.
Bath: Step Over Obstacles
Eraka Bath says a key lesson to be learned from her mother is: “Overcome obstacles, get up and try again.” “Don’t let your mind be imprisoned by majority thinking, be able to think big and do not let majority people and majority thinking define your ability, potential and possibility,” she said.
The ability to help others see — especially children — fueled Bath’s hopes and dreams, too. “She loved children. And she was inspired by inspiring others to succeed,” Eraka Bath said. “She was really a science geek motivated by scientific process as well.”
Vanity projects and publishing papers didn’t impress Bath. She looked for real-life benefits. “She felt like her greatest contribution to ophthalmology and science was to cure blindness and restoring sight,” Eraka Bath said. “The ability to make inroads in science was empowering and gratifying to her.”
In an interview for her biography with the National Institutes of Health “Changing The Face of Medicine” series, Bath said her “personal best moment” occurred on a humanitarian mission to North Africa. During that trip she restored the sight of a woman who had been blind for 30 years. She’d used an implant procedure called keratoprosthesis.
“The ability to restore sight is the ultimate reward,” she said.
Bath’s research on cataracts led to her invention of the Laserphaco. When Bath first conceived of the device in 1981, technology was too primitive, according to the NIH biography. So it took her nearly five years to complete the research and testing needed to make the method work.
But it resulted in one of the key surgical tools in ophthalmology history.
Laserphaco “performed all (the) steps of cataract removal: making the incision, destroying the lens and vacuuming out the fractured pieces,” said a news release announcing Bath’s induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2022. The NIHF inducted two Black female inventors that year — the first in its history. Bath was one of them.
Prior to the invention of the Laserphaco, cataract surgery was done to break up the cataract in the lens, says Eraka Bath. She (Bath) figured out a laser made the procedure painless and quicker with the recovery time.
Bring Your Work To Others
Bath was also “proud” of developing the concept of community ophthalmology. This philosophy prioritizes providing visual care to underserved communities, says Eraka Bath.
She believed eye care is a human right. And she made it her business to open access to care.
She too took inspiration from others. She chose to become a physician after reading about the humanitarian work of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer treated lepers in Africa. Her personal relationship with her family physician, Dr. Cecil Marquez, also got her thinking in that direction, she told the NIH.
“Both my parents shared my admiration for these two role models and encouraged me to pursue my ambition,” she said.
Bath knew she needed to learn more than others to land opportunities. She excelled in her studies in high school and university. She completed high school in two-and-a-half years. And she went on to study chemistry and physics at Hunter College in New York, receiving a B.A. in 1964.
But that was just the start. She received her medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine in 1968. And she interned at Harlem Hospital from 1968 to 1969. A fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University from 1969 to 1970 followed. Bath then completed her training at New York University between 1970 and 1973.
Notably, she was the first African American resident in ophthalmology at NYU.
Look For Gaps Like Bath
Bath didn’t just look for gaps in medical care. She developed ways to close them. As an intern traveling between Harlem Hospital and Columbia University, Bath saw a trend that disturbed her. At the eye clinic in Harlem, half the patients were blind or visually impaired, according the NIH biography.
But at the eye clinic at Columbia, there were very few obviously blind patients. This observation led her to conduct a “retrospective epidemiological” study. She documented that blindness rates among Blacks were double than that among whites.
She also found poor ophthalmic care caused the high rate of blindness among Blacks. To close that gap, she developed the concept of community ophthalmology.
Equality of care guided her career going forward. And in 1974, Bath joined the faculty of UCLA and Charles R. Drew University as an assistant professor of surgery (Drew) and ophthalmology (UCLA). The following year she became the first woman faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute.
Break Down Barriers Like Bath
Bath worked as if she was blind to gender bias and racism. But she knew when to push back, too.
Take when she became the first woman faculty member in the department at UCLA. The university offered her an office “in the basement next to the lab animals,” says the NIH biography. She refused the spot. Bath didn’t say it was racist or sexist. “I said it was inappropriate and succeeded in getting acceptable office space. I decided I was just going to do my work,” she said.
By 1983, she chaired the Ophthalmology Residency Training Program (which she cofounded) at Drew/UCLA. Bath was the first woman in the U.S. to hold such a position.
And her legacy continues to guide the field of ophthalmology at UCLA.
“Her main contribution to the field of ophthalmology and the Stein Institute was as a role model and pioneer in this area for African American females who aspire to be ophthalmologists,” Dr. Bartly Mondino, Chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA, told IBD. “She did some ground breaking work in that regard. She was the first African American female faculty member in Stein as a clinical ophthalmologist.”
Ophthalmologist Dr. Patricia Bath’s Keys
Pioneer in the field of ophthalmology. Revolutionized cataract surgery with the invention of a device and method using lasers.
Overcame: Barriers of racism and gender discrimination to cure blindness and restore sight.
Lesson: “Overcome obstacles, get up and try again. Don’t let your mind be imprisoned by majority thinking.”