Best known for inventing the laserphaco probe, a device and technique to remove cataracts, 2022 NIHF Inductee Dr. Patricia Bath was a leader in the field of ophthalmology. As the first Black woman physician to receive a medical patent, Bath’s inspiring legacy continues to this day through Community Ophthalmology, a discipline that works to address threatening eye conditions in historically underserved communities.
Bath was born in Harlem, New York, on Nov. 4, 1942, to Rupert and Gladys Bath, both of whom were supportive and believed in the importance of education. From an early age, she developed a love of science and in high school became the editor of her school’s science paper.
At age 16, she was selected to participate in a summer program hosted by the National Science Foundation at Yeshiva University and was recognized for deriving a mathematical equation for predicting cancer cell growth. Dr. Robert O. Bernard, one of her mentors in the program, was so impressed with Bath’s work, he incorporated her findings into a paper he presented at an international conference a year later in 1960.
After graduating from high school in just two and a half years, Bath enrolled at Hunter College to study chemistry and physics, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1964. She then attended Howard University’s College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and interned at Harlem Hospital from 1968 to 1969. Following her fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University, from 1970 to 1973, she completed her training at New York University, where she became the first Black resident in ophthalmology.
Research, Breakthroughs and Advocacy
During her internship at Columbia, Bath realized that many of the Black patients she saw were far more likely to have glaucoma and suffered from a higher degree of blindness. In a seminal paper published in 1976, she documented her findings and argued that the reason for this disparity had to do with a lack of access to ophthalmic care.
In response, Bath proposed the discipline of Community Ophthalmology, a field that would combine public health, community medicine, and clinical and daycare programs to test vision and screen for threatening eye conditions among historically underserved communities. This same year, she founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, a nonprofit organization designed to protect, preserve and restore sight through education, community service, research and eye care services.
In 1981, Bath conceived of a novel approach to cataract surgery. The laserphaco probe is a tool that uses a tiny laser to safely vaporize cataracts in a patient’s eye. Once the probe has removed the cataract, a surgeon is then able to remove the lens of the eye and insert a replacement. It took almost five years to complete the necessary research and testing, and in May 1988, she received her first patent for the device. By the year 2000, her minimally invasive device was used in Europe and throughout Asia.
In an interview with the National Institutes of Health, Bath explained that her greatest passion was to fight blindness. She explained that her “personal best moment” occurred on a humanitarian mission to North Africa, where she restored the sight of a woman who had been blind for 30 years.
“The ability to restore sight is the ultimate reward,” Bath said.
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