Dr. Patricia Bath
Bringing Vision to Community Health
Dr. Patricia Bath was the first black woman physician to receive a patent for a medical device! Dr. Bath was born and raised in Harlem, NY. While in high school, she was awarded a National Science Foundation Scholarship. It was this award and the resulting research project that led her to consider a career in medicine. A great student, Bath graduated early from high school and attended New York's Hunter College, graduating with a B.A. in Chemistry. In 1968, Dr. Bath was awarded a medical doctorate from Howard University College of Medicine, and completed an internship in medicine at Harlem Hospital Center.
She then went to Columbia University, where she completed a research fellowship in Ophthalmology - the branch of medicine that deals with eye health. It was during her research years that Dr. Bath noticed the disparities in eye care for racial minorities and the poor. She noticed that the rates of blindness and visual impairment at Harlem Hospital, which served black and poor patients, were much higher than that seen among patients at the Columbia Eye Clinic. Her research found that the rate of blindness among blacks was nearly twice that of whites. Realizing that eye health is a critical part of primary care, she developed programs that combined public health and community medicine with ophthalmology in order to bring this essential care to underserved populations. She was instrumental in bringing eye surgery to Harlem Hospital's Eye Clinic.
In 1970, Dr. Bath began her residency (advanced medical training) in ophthalmology at New York University, becoming the first black to join the NYU training program. (Please click here for a brief overview of medical education in the United States.) But this was just the beginning of her pioneering efforts. In 1974, Bath became the first woman ophthalmologist appointed to the faculty of the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute. In 1983, she was appointed chair of the UCLA ophthalmology program – the first woman chair of an ophthalmology residency program in the U.S.Dr. Bath is co-founder of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AIPB). AIPB was “established in 1976 as a non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of blindness through programs designed to PROTECT, PRESERVE, and RESTORE the Gift of Sight.” With the belief that “eyesight is a basic human right”, the mission of the organization is to ensure that eye care becomes part of the basic health service for everyone.
Not only did Dr. Bath develop innovative strategies to maintaining and improve the vision of all peoples, she developed new techniques to improve the practice of Ophthalmology. She holds four U.S. patents, the first of which was awarded in 1988 for her design of the Laserphaco Probe, a device that uses a laser system to remove cataracts quickly and with minimal discomfort. [See this MedicineNet.com article that describes what a cataract is, risk factors, and available treatments.] The major risk factor is age and if left untreated, cataracts can lead to blindness. The Laserphaco device and its offspring have helped save the eyesight of millions.
Dr. Bath retired from the UCLA Medical Center but continued to advocate for the prevention, treatment and cure of blindness until her death in 2019. Thank you, Dr. Bath for your extraordinary vision, innovation, and pioneering spirit!