Dr Patricia Ena Bath is very much a New Yorker. But West Indians can feel a sense of pride in her achievements as she has strong connections to the Caribbean. She has been a woman of many firsts, as well as an inventor of great repute. She has contributed – in a real way – to the vision of millions across the globe.
Bath was born on November 4, 1942 in Harlem, New York. Bath’s father, Rupert, was a Trinidadian immigrant and the first black motorman in the New York City subway system. Her mother, Gladys, was a descendant of African slaves and Cherokee Native American and worked as a housewife and domestic.
She used her salary to save money for her children’s education. Bath was encouraged by her family to pursue academic interests. Her father was also a former Merchant Marine and an occasional newspaper columnist, and he taught Bath about the wonders of travel and the value of exploring new cultures. Her mother piqued the young girl’s interest in science by buying her a chemistry set.
As a result, Bath worked hard on her intellectual pursuits and, at the age of 16, became one of only a few students to attend a cancer research workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The programme head, Dr. Robert Bernard, was so impressed with Bath’s discoveries during the project that he incorporated her findings in a scientific paper he presented at a conference. The publicity surrounding her discoveries earned Bath the Mademoiselle Magazine’s Merit Award in 1960.
After graduating from high school in only two years, Bath headed to Hunter College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964. She then attended Howard University to pursue a medical degree. Bath graduated with honours from Howard in 1968, and accepted an internship at Harlem Hospital shortly afterward. The following year, she also began pursuing a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. Through her studies there, she discovered that African Americans were twice as likely to suffer from blindness than other patients to which she attended, and eight times more likely to develop glaucoma. Her research led to her development of a community ophthalmology system, which increased the amount of eye care given to those who were unable to afford treatment.
In 1973, Patricia Bath became the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology. She moved to California the following year to work as an assistant professor of surgery at both Charles R. Drew University and the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1975, she became the first female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. She also became the first woman on faculty at the Eye Institute founded by the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, for which she served as president. In 1983, she became the head of a residency in her field at Charles R. Drew, the first woman ever to head such a department.
In 1993, she retired from UCLA, which subsequently elected her the first woman on its honorary staff. She served as a professor of Ophthalmology at Howard University’s School of Medicine and as a professor of Telemedicine and Ophthalmology at St. Georges University. She was among the co-founders of the King-Drew Medical Center ophthalmology training programme. Bath has lectured internationally and authored over 100 papers.
She holds four patents in the United States. In 1981, she conceived of the Laserphaco Probe, a medical device that improves on the use of lasers to remove cataracts, and “for ablating and removing cataract lenses”. The device was completed in 1986 after Bath conducted research on lasers in Berlin and patented in 1988 making her the first African American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose.
The device – which quickly and nearly painlessly dissolves the cataract with a laser, irrigates and cleans the eye and permits the easy insertion of a new lens – is used internationally to treat the disease. Bath has continued to improve the device and has successfully restored vision to people who have been unable to see for decades.
Three of Bath’s four patents relate to the Laserphaco Probe. In 2000, she was granted a patent for a method she devised for using ultrasound technology to treat cataracts.
Bath, the mother of psychiatrist Dr Eraka Bath, has been honoured by two of her universities. Hunter College placed her in its “hall of fame” in 1988 and Howard University declared her a “Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine” in 1993.
Bath was inducted into the International Women in Medicine Hall of Fame in 2001.