If you’ve ever had to get some sort of laser eye surgery, you likely have Dr. Patricia E. Bath to thank. She invented an innovative device known as the laserphaco, which uses a laser to get rid of cataracts.
In Central Florida, there are plenty of places you can visit to get laser vision correction, including Advanced EyeCare in Sanford. Doctors there say there’s no doubt that Bath’s invention created a way to offer patients comfort during surgery today.
“At the time, the laserphaco probe was a revolutionary invention and minimized intraocular damage while efficiently and more safely removing a cataractous lens. Forty years later, as expected, the procedure has come a long way. Arguably, her fiberoptic laserphaco probe could have led to the more advanced laser techniques we use today,” said Dr. Ben Larson, CEO of Advanced EyeCare.
According to the National Institutes of Health, also known as NIH, Bath first came up with the idea in 1981. At the time, it was more advanced than any other technology. It took her nearly five years of research and testing to make it work and she had to apply for a patent.
She was the first African-American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose. Today, her device is used around the world.
Her interest in medicine first started in childhood. She even earned several awards for scientific research as early as age 16. She ended up getting a medical degree from Howard University, interned at Harlem Hospital from 1968 to 1969, and then completed a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University from 1969 to 1970.
Her work at Harlem Hospital was instrumental to bringing eye care to the Black community. She noticed half the patients were blind or visually impaired, and compared that to the eye clinic at Columbia, where there were few blind patients. This led her to conduct a study, where she found blindness among Blacks was double that of whites. She concluded the blindness within the Black community was due to a lack of access to eye care. She proposed a new discipline, known as community ophthalmology, which is now operative around the world.
“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 centers and daycare programs to test vision and screen for cataracts, glaucoma, and other threatening eye conditions.” according to the NIH.
Her efforts to bring services too Harlem Hospital’s eye clinic led to the first major eye operation there in 1970.
She had her daughter, the future Dr. Eraka Bath, in 1972.
“Her passion and persistence for health equity and racial justice, her orientation to preventative health, she embodied the phrase, lift as you climb. She was always giving back to her community and was anchored by it,” Eraka Bath said.
Bath completed her training at New York University, where she became the first African-American resident in ophthalmology at the school.
In 1974, she started working at UCLA, where she was the first woman faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute, and then later first woman chair of the ophthalmology residency training program.
Bath said she experienced sexism and racism during her time at UCLA, but she didn’t let that stop her from breaking barriers elsewhere. She took her research abroad where she earned merits in several countries and achieved her best work in research and laser science.
In 1993, Bath retired from UCLA Medical Center and continued to fight for blindness until her death in May 2019.
She told the NIH that her personal best moment happened during a humanitarian mission to North Africa. She restored the sight of a woman who had been blind for 30 years.
“She strongly identified as a physician, innovator, humanitarian and inventor and would claim space in these ways. She would routinely state that some of her greatest achievements would be in helping the blind see and recognized the Gift of Sight as one of the most precious,” Eraka Bath said.
Bath’s legacy lives on through her daughter, with Eraka serving as a justice equity, diversity and inclusion officer for UCLA’s department of psychiatry. She says her interests are in retention of physicians who are considered underrepresented in medicine. She says not only did she pass on her love for science to her, but also to her granddaughter.
“She loved being a grandmother to Noa, my daughter. She was passionate about children and getting children excited for STEM. She believed the concept of ‘you have to see it to be it’ and centered herself as a role model,” Eraka Bath recalled.
Eraka Bath says there are several children’s books written about her mom, and she says Bath wrote a book for kids herself. It was inspired by her granddaughter and her classmates.
It’s titled “Rainbow Science: What, Why, How? A Primer” and you can find it on Amazon for around $16.