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For Dr. Patricia Bath, the eyes have it

Patricia Bath began life in Harlem, New York on November 4, 1942 and in time, became the first black American to complete an ophthalmology residency. Patricia’s father, Rupert Bath, emigrated from Trinidad. A former Merchant Marine who occasionally wrote a newspaper column; Rupert shared stories with Patricia about his travels as a Merchant Marine and the value of exploring new cultures. He later became the first black man to work for the New York City Subway as a motorman (train operator).

Dr. Patricia Bath

Her mother, Gladys, had ancestors who were African slaves and Cherokee Indians. She earned a salary as a domestic and set the funds aside to go towards the education of her children. Gladys was always looking for special ways to pique Patricia’s interest in science; such as gifting her with a chemistry set.

The encouragement of her parents helped to bolster Patricia’s efforts as she worked hard in her academic quest. She was also inspired as a child to dedicate her life to the field of medicine when she first learned of Dr. Albert Schweitzer's service to lepers in the Congo.

At the age of 16, Patricia joined a handful of students selected for a scholarship to attend a cancer research workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation. During the project, Patricia’s work so impressed the program’s director, Dr. Robert Bernard, that he incorporated her discovery in a scientific paper he wrote and presented at a conference. The publicity from this went on to earn Patricia the Merit Award from Mademoiselle Magazine in 1960. She later did a research project at Yeshiva University and Harlem Hospital regarding cancer, which played a large role in building her interest in medicine.

Bath completed her high school curriculum within a two-year timeframe, then enrolled in Hunter College. She completed her bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1964 and moved on to Howard University in Washington, D.C. in pursuit of a medical degree. Dr. Patricia Bath received her medical degree, with honors, from Howard in 1968 and began her internship at Harlem Hospital. While at Howard, Bath served as president of the Student National Medical Association and received fellowships from both the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institutes of Health.

As Dr. Bath shuttled back and forth between Columbia University and Harlem Hospital during her intern years, she became aware of the fact half the patients who visited the eye clinic in Harlem were either visually impaired or blind. By contrast, visual impairment among the patients at Columbia’s eye clinic was very low. After becoming aware of this fact, Dr. Bath began to conduct a retrospective epidemiological study. The results of her study documented the fact blindness among blacks was double that among whites; along with blacks being eight times more likely to develop glaucoma. She based this conclusion on the fact a majority of blacks had much less access to ophthalmic care.

These findings caused her to persuade a number of professors at Columbia to help address the issue. She developed a community ophthalmology system at Harlem Hospital, in an effort to help increase the quantity of eye care offered to those without the funds to obtain eye care on their own.

In the early ‘70s, Bath married. Her daughter, Eraka, was born in 1972. Though at the time motherhood was her number one priority, she did not allow her career in medicine to collect dust. Bath completed a fellowship in corneal transplantation and keratoprosthesis (replacing the human cornea with an artificial one).

Following the completion of her residency in ophthalmology during 1973 (the first black American to do so), Dr. Bath moved to California where became an assistant professor of surgery at both UCLA and Charles R. Drew University.

In 1974, she became the first female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute. When she learned her office was "in the basement next to the lab animals," she refused it. "I 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." By 1983 she was chair of the ophthalmology residency training program at Drew-UCLA, the first woman in the United States to hold such a position.

Dr. Bath’s efforts have not been confined strictly to the campus of a university. She co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976 with the motto, "eyesight is a basic human right." Through it, community ophthalmology is now operative worldwide; combining the aspects of public health, community medicine, and clinical ophthalmology to offer primary care to underserved populations. Volunteers are trained as eye workers, then visit daycare programs and senior centers where they offer vision tests, along with screening for cataracts, glaucoma, and other conditions which threaten eye health and function.

Through this outreach, the sight of thousands has been saved from problems which would otherwise have likely gone undiagnosed and thus untreated. Volunteers who have been able to identify children in need of eyeglasses offer these kids a greater opportunity to succeed in both school and life. The institute supports global initiatives to provide newborn infants with protective anti-infection eye drops, to ensure that children who are malnourished receive vitamin A supplements essential for vision, and to vaccinate children against diseases, such as measles, which can lead to blindness.

Any individual who crosses new social barriers of any type knows what it is to confront unexpected challenges. Though the universities’ policies condemned discrimination and extolled equality, Professor Bath dealt with her share of racism and sexism throughout her tenure at both Drew and UCLA. Rather than allow the “glass ceiling” to constrain her efforts, Bath took her research to Europe for a time. Here she was freed from many toxic constraints and the merits of her research were recognized by the Rothschild Eye Institute of Paris, France; the Laser Medical Center of Berlin, West Germany; and the Loughborough Institute of Technology in Loughborough, Leicestershire, England. At those institutions, Dr. Bath achieved her "personal best" in research and laser science; the fruits of which are evidenced by the laser patents she received for eye surgery.

In 1981, Bath began working on the invention for which she is best known - the Laserphaco Probe. When she first conceived the idea of the device, her thoughts were more advanced than the technology available at the time. Five years were required for Dr. Bath to complete the necessary research and testing to make the probe work and apply for a patent. Today the device is used worldwide. By harnessing the power of the laser, this device makes it possible to offer more precise treatment of cataracts, while at the same time making the treatment less painful for the patient.

The probe is one of several medical patents in Dr. Bath’s portfolio; joining her collection in 1988 and making her the first black female doctor to hold a patent for a medical purpose. (Her collection also includes patents in Japan, Canada and Europe.) Using the Laserphaco Probe, Bath has been able to restore the gift of sights to individuals who had suffered from blindness for more than 30 years.

When Dr. Bath retired from the UCLA Medical Center in 1993, she became an honorary member of its medical staff. Shortly thereafter, she was named a "Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine". Dr. Patricia Bath continues to remain a strong advocate of telemedicine in an effort to provide medical services in remote areas through the use of technology.

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