Representation matters. Case in point: this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree Dr. Patricia Bath, whose work both inside and outside the operating room saved the sight of many.
Born in Harlem, New York in 1942, Bath showed an early aptitude for science, which her parents encouraged. She received a medical degree from Howard University and went on to specialize in ophthalmology. During a fellowship at Columbia University, she observed that African American patients were disproportionally affected by preventable and/or treatable eye problems. While some scientists might have jumped to trying to find genetic roots to this disparity, Bath took a more holistic view. Having grown up dealing with poverty and racism, she was all too aware of how they could affect access to care. She also knew that without prevention information, early detection, and medical treatment, curable eye ailments could lead to irreversible blindness. After she found that this was the case for her African American ophthalmology patients, she founded a discipline called Community Ophthalmology to provide access to basic eye care treatment and education to everyone. Community Ophthalmology has since become a worldwide discipline that has saved the sight of countless people, including through the work of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which she co-founded in 1976.
In addition to expanding access to care, Bath also worked to improve the care patients received, inventing a tool to remove cataracts, the Laserphaco Probe. She patented the probe (which is still used) in 1988, making her the first female African American doctor to patent a medical device. Among her other firsts – she became the first female Ophthalmology Chair in the US and the first female African American surgeon at UCLA. She retired from UCLA in 1993, but continues to advocate for access to eye care, which she considers a basic human right. In an effort to expand this access, she has taught telemedicine at Howard University and Grenada’s St. George University.