November 4, 1942 – Birth of Patricia Bath, African American Medical Scientist and Inventor

Patricia Bath, born on November 4, 1942, in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, was the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology in 1973. In 1976, she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which established that “eyesight is a basic human right.” In 1986, she invented the Laserphaco Probe, improving treatment for cataract patients. She patented the device in 1988, becoming the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent.

While other little girls played nurse, even at age 6, Patricia wanted to be a doctor. She stitched and sewed her dolls, mending them and dreaming of helping people in the same way one day. The fact that she was an African American, a girl, and from a family without money didn’t phase her then, or at any time. Her parents stressed the importance of education and hard work, and encouraged her interest in science by buying her a chemistry set.

At the age of 16, Patricia became one of only a few students to attend a cancer research workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The program head, Dr. Robert Bernard, was so impressed with her discoveries during the project that he incorporated her findings in a scientific paper he presented at a conference.

After graduating from high school in only two years, Patricia headed to Hunter College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1964. She then attended Howard University to pursue a medical degree. She graduated with honors from Howard in 1968, and accepted an internship at Harlem Hospital shortly afterward. The following year, she also began pursuing a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. Through her studies there, 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; she convinced her former professors to operateg on patients for free.

In 1975, she moved to California to join the famed Jules Stein Eye Institute; she was the first woman hired there, although at first she was given an office in the basement, next to the lab animals. Patricia demanded an equal workspace upstairs, and got it. Then she continued her quest of trying to restore sight to the blind. She came up with the idea of using lasers in eye surgery, and traveled to Europe in 1986 to study the idea, eventually inventing a new tool called the “Laserphaco Probe.” The U.S. granted her a patent for the device in 1988.

During Patricia’s retirement years, she traveled to Tanzania, visiting a school for the blind, where the kids did not even have braille books. She sent them braille-computer keyboards, calling it “computer vision.”

Bath died on May 30, 2019, at a University of California, San Francisco medical center from cancer-related complications, aged 76. She was granted many honors and awards during her lifetime, including the 1995 NAACP Legal Defense Fund Black Woman Achievement Award, and induction into the American Medical Women’s Association Hall of Fame in 2001.

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