Patricia Bath was born in 1942 in Harlem to Rubert and Gladys Bath. Both parents added wonder and support to Dr. Bath’s eventual success. According to Bath, “My father was a MacGyver type Dad with extraordinary mathematical skills and my Mom loved sewing and art. So, I and my brother Rupert got a STEAM head start with at least the M and the A of STEAM.” Dr. Bath excelled in high school, graduating in two years and earning a National Science Foundation scholarship to study cancer growth along the way. Her work with Yeshiva University and Harlem Hospital Center resulted in a mathematical predictive model for cancer growth, a published paper, and a “Merit Award” from Mademoiselle magazine all by the age of 18.
Coming from a working-class black family, a college education was not a guarantee, but as Dr. Bath described it, her mother took work as a housekeeper and “scrubbed floors so I could go to medical school.” She received a BA at Hunter College in 1964 and graduated with honors from Howard University College of Medicine in 1968.
While working as an intern, back home, at Harlem Hospital Center she recognized a great disparity in the cases of blindness among her predominately black and poor patients at Harlem and those at Columbia University’s Eye Clinic. This recognition led to a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University and research indicating that Blacks were twice as likely to become blind and 8 times more likely than average to do so from glaucoma than average. Noticing the lack of ophthalmological care for disadvantaged populations, Dr. Bath championed the idea of Community Ophthalmology. Volunteers, including her medical colleagues would provide care to the elderly, glasses for children, and pro bono surgery to those communities who did not have the same advantages as their white counterparts.
Her career after completing residency at NYU in 1970 brought her back to Columbia University and then to UCLA both as an associate professor researching surgical solutions to blindness. Unable to secure funding for her research from the National Institutes of Health, she set out to pursue her work internationally. She spent time at the Rothschilde Eye Institute of Paris, the Loughborough Institute of Technology, and the University of Free Berlin. The research she participated in led to Dr. Bath’s invention of her Laser phaco “for ablating and removing cataract lenses.” Doing so made Dr. Bath the first African-American female doctor to patent a medical device.
Dr. Bath’s immense success came through much determination and despite of a dearth of female and black role model’s she credited the pioneering women that came before her. In April 2019, about two months before she died from cancer complications, Dr. Bath testified before Congress for the Judiciary Committee on Trailblazers and Lost Einsteins: Women Inventors and the Future of American Innovation. In her testimony, she talked of her struggles for recognition comparing them to those of her predecessors. She used her testimony to stress the need for diversity in STEM and STEAM concluding with the statement, “[f]inally, the greatest weapon in our toolkit is scientific integrity. When all else fails, truth and scientific integrity will triumph. In the presence of family, legacy and women inventors, past, present and future, I pledge my inalienable championship for scientific integrity and truth.”
A true trailblazer the list of Dr. Bath’s many firsts includes: first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology; first female faculty member in the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute’s Department of Ophthalmology and first black woman surgeon on staff; first U.S. woman to serve as chair of an ophthalmology residency training program; first African-American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention; and first woman on the Honorary staff of UCLA Medical Center.
Featured Image By National Library of Medicine – https://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_26.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3105942