Bath, Patricia E. 1942–
Patricia E. Bath 1942–
Patricia Bath became the first African–American woman to receive a patent for a medical invention in 1988. She developed a laser device to remove cataracts. Bath began her scientific career in cancer research as a teenager and then pursued ophthalmology in medical school. She developed a new field called community ophthalmology that was dedicated to providing quality eye care to underserved populations. In addition to her distinguished academic career, Bath also founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness and serves as the organization’s president.
Patricia Erna Bath was born on November 4, 1942, in New York City. She was the second child and first daughter born to Rupert and Gladys Bath. Bath’s father immigrated to the United States from Trinidad and worked at a variety of occupations. He was the first black motorman for the New York City subway system, and also wrote a newspaper column and worked as a merchant seaman. As a seaman Rupert Bath traveled all over the world and his experiences influenced his daughter’s desire to do the same. Patricia Bath’s mother, Gladys Bath, was descended from African slaves and Cherokee Indians. She worked as a home–maker until her children were in middle school and then worked as a housekeeper for other families. Bath’s parents encouraged their children to be well read and well educated. “They believed that with enough education, I could own the world,” Bath said in a lecture sponsored by the Lemelson Center’s Innovative Live series.
Bath’s mother loved books and encouraged her children to read. She also fostered young Patricia’s interest in science. Bath remembers as a child playing with a microscope set that her mother bought from Macy’s. Bath was a gifted student and her teachers encouraged her to pursue her interests in science and math. Bath attended Julia Ward Howe junior high school and then Charles Evans Hughes High School, where she took two years of biology and advanced chemistry. Bath did so well in school that she completed high school in two-and-half years.
In July of 1959 Bath received a grant from the National Science Foundation to attend the Summer Institute in Biomedical Science at Yeshiva University in New York. Even though she was only a teenager, Bath gained recognition for her scientific skills and potential. She and fellow classmate Arnold Lentnek worked on a project studying the relationship between cancer, nutrition, and stress. At the young age of 17, Bath was the co–author with Lentnek of a research report that was presented at the Fifth Annual International Congress on Nutrition in Washington, D.C., on September 2, 1960. In the same year Bath was given a Merit Award by Mademoiselle magazine in recognition of her outstanding contributions to science and her great potential for future achievements. After high school Bath worked at Yeshiva University and Harlem Hospital with a cancer research team that was focusing on a project predicting cancer cell growth. She was mentored by
At a Glance …
Born Patricia Erna Bath on November 4, 1942, in New York City; married; children: Eraka, Education: Hunter College, B.A., 1964; Howard University Medical College, M.D., 1968.
Career: Sydenham Hospital, New York City, assistant surgeon, 1973; Flower and Fifth Avenue Hospital, assistant surgeon, 1973; Metropolitan Surgical Hospital, asst surgeon, 1973; Department of Ophthalmology, New York Medical College, clinical instructor, 1973–74; University of California Los Angeles Medical (UCLA) Center, surgeon, 1974–93; Charles R. Drew University, asst professor, 1974–; UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute, surgeon, 1976–93; American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, president, 1976–; Mercy Hospital, Nigeria, visiting chief of ophthalmology, 1977; White House Counsel for a National and International Blindness Prevention Program, 1977–1978; UCLA Medical Center, chair, ophthalmology residency training program, 1983; Department of Ophthalmology, UCLA Medical Center, chair, 1983–86; Howard Univ Hospital, prof of telecommunications; St George’s Univ, Grenada, prof of telecommunications.
Memberships: American Medical Association; National Medical Assn; Amer Society of Contemporary Ophthalmologists; Amer Public Health Assn; International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness; Amer College of Surgeons.
Selected awards: Merit Award, Mademoiselle magazine, 1960; fellowship, National Institutes of Health (NIH), 1965; fellowship, National Institute of Mental Health, 1965–66; fellowship, Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare Children’s Bureau, 1967; fellowship, NIH, Howard Univ, 1968; Outstanding Student in Endocrinology, Outstanding Student in Ophthalmology, and Outstanding Student in Pulmonary Disease, Howard Univ, 1963; Hunter Coll Hall of Fame, 1988; Howard Univ Pioneer in Academic Medicine, 1993; International Women in Medicine Hall of Fame, Amer Medical Women’s Assn, 2001.
Addresses: Office —Charles R. Drew Postgraduate Medical School, 12021 S. Wilmington Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90059.
such notable scientists as Rabbi Moses D. Tendler and Dr. Robert O. Bernard.
From this early exposure to medicine and research, Bath knew that she wanted to pursue a career in medicine. She attended Hunter College in New York City where she was on the dean’s list and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with highest honors in 1964. Bath then attended Howard University Medical School. This was an important experience for Bath because it was the first time that she was exposed to African–American professors. Bath was mentored by Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr., a past president of the American Cancer Society, and by Dr. Lois A. Young. During her studies Bath received a National Institute of Health fellowship and two National Institute of Mental Health fellowships. She graduated with honors in 1968 and also won the Edwin J. Watson Prize for Outstanding Student in Ophthalmology.
As a child Bath was inspired by Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s humanitarian efforts in treating the sick in Africa, which led to his Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. Bath also had a desire to help the less fortunate members of society. During the summer of 1967 she traveled to Yugoslavia to study children’s health and the following year she worked for the Poor People’s Campaign organizing a march on Washington, D.C., for economic rights. Her next two employment opportunities solidified her decision to incorporate social consciousness into her career. From 1968 to 1969 Bath worked as an intern at the Harlem Hospital and the following year she completed an ophthalmology fellowship at Columbia University. Bath could not help but notice the contrasts between the patients and quality of medical care at the two locations. In particular, she noticed that the predominantly African–American patients at Harlem Hospital seemed to have more severe eyesight problems than the white patients at Columbia University. She then conducted a formal retrospective epidemiological study that showed that blindness was twice as common among African Americans as it was among whites because African Americans had less access to quality ophthalmic care.
This experience and research led Bath to develop a new field called Community Ophthalmology, which combines public health, community medicine, and ophthalmology to serve populations in need. As part of this project Bath convinced her colleagues at Columbia University to operate on blind patients at Harlem Hospital’s Eye Clinic free of charge and she volunteered her own time to work as an assistant surgeon. “The ability to restore vision is the ultimate reward,” Bath stated in her lecture for the Lemelson Center’s series.
From 1970 until 1973 Bath was the first African–American resident in ophthalmology at New York University. During this time she also married and gave birth to a daughter, Eraka, in 1972. In 1973 Bath worked as an assistant surgeon at Sydenham Hospital, Flower and Fifth Avenue Hospital, and Metropolitan Surgical Hospital, all in New York City. In 1974 she completed a fellowship in corneal and keratoprosthesis surgery. Bath and her daughter moved to Los Angeles where Bath became the first African–American woman surgeon at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center. She was also appointed assistant professor at the Charles R. Drew University. In 1975 Bath became the first woman faculty member of the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute.
During the early years of her career Bath also pursued her interests in international travel and social activism for the disadvantaged. In 1976 Bath and some of her colleagues founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness to fight for the right to sight for all people all over the world. In her capacity as president of the organization, she has traveled the world lecturing and performing surgery. In 1977 Bath worked as the chief of ophthalmology at Mercy Hospital in Nigeria. From 1977 to 1978 she also served as the White House Counsel for a National and International Blindness Prevention Program.
In 1981 Bath began to pursue an idea that would make her famous—laser surgery to remove cataracts. Cataracts are cloudy spots that form on the lenses of the eyes as people age. They can cause blurry vision and eventually lead to blindness. Cataracts can be removed through traditional surgery or ultrasound, and artificial lenses can be inserted to replace the eyes’ natural lenses. However, Bath conceived of a faster and easier way to remove cataracts using laser technology. At that time lasers were not commonly used in medicine in the United States, but Bath did not let this discourage her. As she told Kevin Chappell of Ebony magazine, “We need to take the obstacles and use them as challenges to stimulate us to not just be good, but to be the best.” Bath traveled to Berlin University in Germany to learn more about laser technology. Over the course of the next five years she developed and tested a model for a laser instrument that could be used to remove cataracts. Bath received a patent for her invention on May 17, 1988, and became the first African–American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention. In that same year Bath was inducted into the Hunter College Hall of Fame.
Bath’s invention is called a Laserphaco Probe. The device can be inserted into an incision in the eye and the laser vaporizes the cataract and the lens. The damaged lens can then be removed and a new lens inserted. Bath’s procedure is more accurate than traditional cataract removal procedures and is more comfortable for the patient. Since 1988 Bath has received three more U.S. patents for laser cataract surgery, as well as patents from Japan, Canada, and five European countries. Since 2000 the Laserphaco Probe has been used for cataract removal in Italy, Germany, and India, and is undergoing testing in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration. Bath is promoting her invention in order to finance her work at the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. “Inventing is similar to other fields,” Bath told Chappel at Ebony magazine. “If you are Black, there is a glass ceiling you have to penetrate. I have several offers for my (cataract–removal) device, but right now, they are not the kinds of offers that are acceptable.”
Bath continued to work at UCLA and Drew University during the development of her laser cataract removal instrument. In 1983 she developed and chaired an ophthalmology residency training program. This made her the first woman program director of a postgraduate training program in the United States. From 1983 to 1986 Bath was also the first woman chair of an ophthalmology department. In 1993 Bath retired from the UCLA Medical Center and was then elected to the center’s honorary medical staff, the first woman to receive this honor. That same year Bath was also named a Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine. Since leaving UCLA Bath has been promoting telemedicine to provide medical services to hard–to–reach populations through telecommunications. She worked at Howard University Hospital and at St. George’s University in Grenada promoting such programs, and served as a consultant for an on–line pharmacy Internet company. In May of 2001 Bath was inducted into the International Women in Medicine Hall of Fame sponsored by the American Medical Women’s Association.
Patricia Bath continues to promote community ophthalmology through academic positions as well as through her presidency of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. Since her childhood Bath has never let her race or gender interfere with her ambition. She told a group of schoolchildren during the Lemelson Center’s Innovative Live series, “Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking. Remember that the limits of science are not the limits of your imagination.”
Henderson, Susan K, African American Inventors III, Capstone Press, 1998.
Sullivan, Otha Richard (editor), Black Stars: African American Women Scientists and Inventors, John Wiley and Sons, 2001.
Warren, Wini, Black Women Scientists in the United States, Indiana University Press, 1999.
Ebony, February 1997, p. 40; December 1999, p. 91.
Times–Picayune (New Orleans), April 29, 1999, p. Bl.
About Inc. http://www.inventors.about.com
African–American Inventors, http://www.emeagwali.com
American Medical Women’s Association, http://www.amwa-doc.org
Black History Pages, http://www.5x5media.com
International Museum of Black Inventions, http://www.blackinventionsmuseum.com
Lemelson Center, httpy/www.si.edu/lemelson/centerpieces
TDP Newsletter, http://www.3dpublishing.com/learningcenter/bath.htm
—Janet P. Stamatel
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