Science history: First among equals

Patricia Bath has achieved an impressive number of firsts.

Overcoming sexism, racism and poverty, she was the first African-American to complete a residency in ophthalmology, at New York University, in 1973. Two years later she became the first female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of California at Los Angeles’ Jules Stein Eye Institute.

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Patricia Bath, honoured at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Credit: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

She was the first African-American woman to serve on staff as a surgeon at the UCLA Medical Centre, and after her retirement became the first woman elected to the honorary staff there. She is also the first African-American woman doctor to receive a medical patent. In 1986, she invented the Laserphaco Probe for cataract treatment, which was patented in 1988.

Bath was born in New York, on November 4, 1942. According to the website, her mother piqued young Patricia’s interest in science by buying her a chemistry set.

After graduating with honours from Howard University, in Washington, DC, in 1968, she accepted an internship at Harlem Hospital in New York City. The following year, she began a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University, in Manhattan.

Through her studies there, she conducted a retrospective epidemiological study, which documented that blindness among blacks was double that among whites, and that blacks were eight times more likely to develop glaucoma.

According to the website Changing the Face of Medicine, she concluded that the high prevalence of blindness among blacks was attributable to a lack of access to ophthalmic care, so she proposed a new discipline, known as community ophthalmology, “which is now operative worldwide”.

Community ophthalmology combines aspects of public health, community medicine, and clinical ophthalmology to offer primary care to underserved populations. Volunteers trained as eye workers visit senior centres and daycare programs to test vision and screen for cataracts, glaucoma, and other threatening eye conditions.

“This outreach,” the website explains, “has saved the sight of thousands whose problems would otherwise have gone undiagnosed and untreated. By identifying children who need eyeglasses, the volunteers give these children a better chance for success in school.”

In 1977, Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AiPB), based on the principle that “eyesight is a basic human right”.

A holder of several patents, Bath remains best for the Laserphaco Probe, an apparatus for removing cataracts, a cloudiness that forms in the lens of the eye, causing blurry or distorted vision, or blindness, making the surgery faster, easier, more accurate, and less invasive by using lasers.

The website for the Lemelson Centre for the Study of Innovation says Bath had to go to Germany to test her invention because adequate non-military lasers were not available in the US. Equally frustrating, it says, were the attorneys she engaged, so that she eventually taught herself patent law so she could file her own claims.

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