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Celebrating Black History: Dr. Patricia Bath

Known as the “inventor of the Laserphaco Probe,” Dr. Patricia Bath was a pioneer in ophthalmology and the first American female doctor to receive a medical patent for inventing the Laserphaco Probe for cataract treatment in 1986.

February marks the 45th annual celebration of Black History Month, dedicated to honoring and spotlighting the significant works, achievements, and contributions African Americans have made and continue to make to our society and the world.

To celebrate, each week throughout Black History Month, Trusted Medical is spotlighting an African American medical pioneer whose groundbreaking contributions changed the course of medicine and paved the way for future generations to come. Click here if you missed last week’s incredible innovator, Dr. Jane C. Wright.

This week, we highlight the life of Dr. Patricia Bath. Keep reading to learn more about Dr. Patricia Bath and her groundbreaking role in the field of medicine. 

Early Life & Education

Born in New York City’s Harlem, Bath was the daughter of Rupert Bath, the first black motorman for the New York City’s subway system, and Gladys Bath, a housewife and domestic worker who used her salary to save money for her children’s education. Her father inspired her love for traveling and exploring different cultures and pushed her to pursue her education. Bath developed a passion for science and her mother bought her her first chemistry set.

She attended Charles Evans Hughes High School where she excelled in both science and math. Her excellence in academics would earn her a scholarship to attend a cancer research program sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The program’s head, Dr. Robert Bernard, was so impressed with Bath’s discoveries during the program that he presented her finding in a scientific paper at a conference. As a result, Bath earned Mademoiselle Magazine’s Merit Award in 1960.

Bath graduated from high school in just two years and attended Hunter College, where she later earned her bachelor’s degree in 1964. She then attended Howard University to pursue a medical degree and graduated with honors from Howard in 1968. Shortly afterward, she completed an internship at Harlem Hospital and a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. While studying at Columbia University, 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 that provided eye care to those in the community who were unable to afford treatment.

Professional Career                                                                                     In 1973, 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.

She became the first female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute in 1975. A year later, she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness which established that eyesight is a basic human right.

Inventor of the Laserphaco Probe

In 1981, Bath began working on her invention that would be later known as the Laserphaco Probe. The device created a less painful and more precise treatment of cataracts. Bath received a patent for the device in 1988, becoming the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent, holding patents in Japan, Canada, and Europe. Her Laserphaco Probe significantly contributed to the restoration of sight of individuals who had been blind for more than 30 years.

Bath would also help create the Ophthalmology Residency Training program at UCLA-Drew and later become its chair in which she would become the first woman in the nation to hold such a position. In 1993, Bath was named a “Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine” and later retired from her position.

Death & Legacy                                                                                         

In 1993, Bath was named a “Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine.” She later retired that same year but her legacy lives on as her groundbreaking discoveries changed the face of ophthalmology and continued to be used to this day.

In 2001, Bath was inducted into the International Women in Medicine Hall of Fame. She passed on May 30, 2019, at the University of California, San Francisco medical center from cancer-related complications. She was 76.