Black history and culture are multifaceted and dynamic – exampled by resilience, ability to subvert systems designed to exclude, and courage to build seats at tables with mere fragments of chairs. The diversity of backgrounds held by Black lives lend inspired and creative perspectives that continue to push societies, organizations, and industries forward. And though the tales and achievements of a community cannot be reduced to the success of one individual, to celebrate Black History Month through this office’s lens of innovation, we’ve chosen to highlight Patricia Bath, MD – inventive legend, and the first Black woman to receive a medical patent.
Patricia Bath, MD, was born in New York City in 1942. Guided by parents who believed in, and saved for, the wonder of education, she was encouraged by her family to pursue academic interests. Her father, a former Merchant Marine and an occasional newspaper columnist, taught Dr. Bath about 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, Dr. 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. After graduating from high school in only two years, Dr. Bath attended Hunter College, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1964. She pursued a medical degree at Howard University.
Dr. Bath graduated with honors from Howard in 1968 and accepted an internship at Harlem Hospital. The following year, she began pursuing a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. Through her studies at Columbia, 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, Dr. Bath became the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology. The following year, she moved to California 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. In 1976, Dr. Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which established that "eyesight is a basic human right." By 1983, Dr. Bath had helped create the Ophthalmology Residency Training program at UCLA-Drew, which she also chaired – becoming the first woman in the nation to hold such a position.
In 1981, Dr. Bath began working on her most well-known invention: the Laserphaco Probe. Harnessing laser technology, her device created a less painful, more precise treatment of cataracts by vaporizing cloudy areas via 1-millimeter insertions into a patient’s eye. Her idea was extremely advanced for its time, taking several years to perfect and apply for patenting. She received a patent for the device in 1988, becoming the first African American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose. She received another in 1998. In total, Dr. Bath would acquire four US patents related to the Laserphaco Probe, in addition to patents in Japan, Canada, and Europe. The Laserphaco Probe has been used overseas since 2000 and has been approved for safety by the FDA. With her probe, Dr. Bath was able to help restore the sight of individuals who had been blind for more than 30 years.
In 1993, Dr. Bath retired from her position at the UCLA Medical Center and became an honorary member of its medical staff. That same year, she was named a "Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine." Dr. Bath passed in May 2019, leaving behind a legacy in health innovation for the treatment and cure of blindness, and an astute grasp of the medical technology poised to keep healthcare moving forward. Among her many roles in the medical field, she was a strong advocate of telemedicine and its use to provide medical services in remote areas. As part of Black History Month and our continuous celebration of innovation, we recognize and remember Dr. Bath’s entrepreneurship and the doors she opened for Black and female innovators everywhere.
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