Patricia Bath, an ophthalmologist and laser scientist, is an innovative research scientist and advocate for blindness prevention, treatment, and cure. Her accomplishments include the invention of a new device and technique for cataract surgery known as laserphaco, the creation of a new discipline known as "community ophthalmology," and appointment as the first woman chair of ophthalmology in the United States, at Drew-UCLA in 1983.
After excelling in her studies in high school and university and earning awards for scientific research as early as age sixteen, Dr. Bath embarked on a career in medicine. She received her medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., interned at Harlem Hospital from 1968 to 1969, and completed a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University from 1969 to 1970.
As a young intern shuttling between Harlem Hospital and Columbia University, Bath was quick to observe a disparity in numbers of blind or visually impaired patients at the eye clinics of the two hospitals. After conducting a retrospective epidemiological study that revealed that blindness among blacks was double that among whites, Bath proposed a new discipline, known as community ophthalmology, to increase access to ophthalmic care in underserved populations. This outreach has saved the sight of thousands whose problems would otherwise have gone undiagnosed and untreated.
Bath was also instrumental in bringing ophthalmic surgical services to Harlem Hospital's 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 operation at Harlem Hospital was performed in 1970 as a result of her efforts.
Following her internship, Dr. Bath completed her training at New York University between 1970 and 1973, where she was the first African American resident in ophthalmology. She also completed a fellowship in corneal transplantation and keratoprosthesis (replacing the human cornea with an artificial one).
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 woman faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute. By 1983, she was chair of the ophthalmology residency training program at Drew-UCLA, the first woman in the USA to hold such a position.
Determined that her research not be obstructed by the "glass ceilings," she took her research abroad to Europe. Her research was accepted on its merits at the Laser Medical Center of Berlin, West Germany, the Rothschild Eye Institute of Paris, France, and the Loughborough Institute of Technology, England. At those institutions, Bath achieved her "personal best" in research and laser science, the fruits of which are evidenced by her laser patents on eye surgery.
1987 Interview with Dr. Bath highlighting the first Laserphaco procedure in a human eye
Her interest, experience, and research on cataracts lead to her invention of a new device and method to remove cataracts—the laserphaco probe. When she first conceived of the device in 1981, her idea was more advanced than the technology available at the time. It took her nearly five years to complete the research and testing needed to make it work and apply for a patent. Today the device is used worldwide.
In 1993, Bath retired from UCLA Medical Center and was appointed to the honorary medical staff. Since then, she has been an advocate of telemedicine, the use of electronic communication to provide medical services to remote areas where health care is limited. She has held positions in telemedicine at Howard University and St. George's University in Grenada.
Dr. Bath's greatest passion, however, continues to be fighting blindness. In 1977, she and three other colleagues founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AIPB), an organization whose mission is to protect, preserve, and restore the gift of sight. As director of AIPB, Bath has traveled widely. On these travels she has performed surgery, taught new medical techniques, donated equipment, lectured, met with colleagues, and witnessed the disparity in health services available in industrial and developing countries. Her "personal best moment" occurred on a humanitarian mission to North Africa, when she restored the sight of a woman who had been blind for thirty years by implanting a keratoprosthesis. "The ability to restore sight is the ultimate reward," she says.