Dr. Patricia Bath’s invention has helped ophthalmologists and surgeons |

Patricia E. Bath, ophthalmologist and laser specialist, is an innovative scientific researcher and advocate for the prevention, treatment and cure of blindness.

His accomplishments include the invention of a new cataract surgery device and technique known as laserphaco, the creation of a new discipline known as “community ophthalmology” and the appointment of the first female chair of ophthalmology in the United States, at Drew-UCLA in 1983.

Bath’s dedication to a life in medicine began in her childhood, when she first heard of Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s service to lepers in the Congo. After excelling in her studies in high school and college and winning awards for scientific research from the age of sixteen, Bath embarked on a career in medicine.

She earned her medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC, interned at Harlem Hospital from 1968 to 1969, and completed a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University from 1969 to 1970.

Following her internship, Bath completed her training at New York University between 1970 and 1973, where she was the first African-American ophthalmology resident. Bath married and had a daughter Eraka, born in 1972. While motherhood became her priority, she also managed to complete a fellowship in corneal transplantation and keratoprosthesis (replacement of the human cornea with an artificial cornea ).

“Sexism, racism and relative poverty were the barriers I faced as a young girl growing up in Harlem,” she said. “I didn’t know any female doctors and surgery was a predominantly male profession. no high school existed in Harlem, a predominantly black community; moreover, blacks were excluded from many medical schools and medical societies; and my family did not have the funds to send me to medical school.

Bath noted that her mother scrubbed the floors so she could go to medical school.

As a young intern commuting between Harlem Hospital and Columbia University, Bath quickly observed that at the Harlem Eye Clinic, half of the patients were blind or partially sighted. At the Columbia Eye Clinic, by contrast, there were very few obviously blind patients.

This observation led her to conduct a retrospective epidemiological study, which documented that blindness among blacks was double that among whites. She came to the conclusion that the high prevalence of blindness among black people was due to lack of access to eye care.

As a result, she came up with a new discipline, known as community ophthalmology, which is now operational worldwide. Community ophthalmology combines aspects of public health, community medicine, and clinical ophthalmology to provide primary care to underserved populations.

Volunteers trained as vision workers visit senior centers and daycare programs to test vision and screen for cataracts, glaucoma and other threatening eye conditions. This awareness has saved the sight of thousands of people whose problems would otherwise have gone undiagnosed and untreated.

By identifying children who need glasses, volunteers give these children a better chance of succeeding in school.

Bath also helped bring eye surgery services to the Harlem Hospital Eye Clinic, which did not perform eye surgery in 1968. She persuaded her professors at Columbia to operate on blind patients for free, and she volunteered as an assistant surgeon. The first major eye surgery at Harlem Hospital was performed in 1970 through his efforts.

In 1974, Bath joined the faculty of UCLA and Charles R. Drew University as an assistant professor of surgery (Drew) and ophthalmology (UCLA).

The following year, she became the first female faculty member of the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. As she notes, when she became the department’s first female teacher, she was offered an office “in the basement next to the lab animals.”

She refused the place.

“I didn’t say it was racist or sexist,” Bath said. “I said it was inappropriate and managed to get an acceptable office space. I decided that I was just going to do my job. In 1983, she was chair of the ophthalmology residency program at Drew-UCLA, the first woman in the United States to hold such a position.

Despite university policies advocating equality and condemning discrimination, Professor Bath experienced many instances of sexism and racism throughout her tenure at UCLA and Drew. Determined that her research would not be hindered by “glass ceilings”, she took her research abroad to Europe. Finally freed from the toxic constraints of sexism and racism, her research has been accepted on its merits at the Laser Medical Center in Berlin, West Germany, the Rothschild Eye Institute in Paris, France, and the Loughborough Institute of Technology, in England. At these institutions, she achieved her “personal record” in laser research and science, the fruits of which are evidenced by her laser eye surgery patents.

Bath’s work and interests, however, have always extended beyond the confines of a university. In 1977, she and three other colleagues founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, an organization whose mission is to protect, preserve and restore the gift of sight. AIPB is based on the principle that sight is a basic human right and that primary eye care should be available to everyone, everywhere, regardless of economic status.

Much of AIPB’s work is done by ophthalmic assistants, who are trained in major university programs. The institute supports global initiatives to provide newborn babies with protective eye drops that protect against infections, to ensure that malnourished children receive vitamin A supplements essential for vision, and to immunize children against diseases (such as measles) which can lead to blindness.

As director of the AIPB, Bath has traveled extensively. During these trips, she performed surgeries, taught new medical techniques, donated equipment, gave lectures, met colleagues and witnessed the disparity of health services available in industrialized and developing countries.

Bath is also a scientist and inventor of the laser. Her interest, her experience and her research on cataracts led her to invent a new device and a new method for removing cataracts: the laserphaco probe.

When she first designed the device in 1981, her idea was more advanced than the technology available at the time. It took him nearly five years to complete the research and testing necessary to make it work and file a patent application.

Today, the device is used all over the world. Thanks to the keratoprosthesis device, Dr. Bath has been able to restore the sight of several blind people for more than 30 years.

In 1993, Bath retired from UCLA Medical Center and was named an honorary medical staff member. Since then, she has championed telemedicine, the use of electronic communication to deliver medical services in remote areas where health care is limited. She has held positions in telemedicine at Howard University and St. George’s University in Grenada.

However, Bath’s greatest passion remains the fight against blindness. Her “personal best moment” occurred during a humanitarian mission in North Africa, when she restored sight to a woman who had been blind for thirty years by implanting a keratoprosthesis.

“The ability to restore sight is the ultimate reward,” she said.

— Source: Changing the Face of Medicine