Patricia Bath (born November 4, 1942) is an American doctor and inventor. Born in New York City, she was living in Los Angeles when she received her first patent, becoming the first African-American female doctor to patent a medical invention. Bath’s patent was for a method for removing cataract lenses using laser devices to make the procedure more accurate.
Fast Facts: Patricia Bath
- Known For: Bath is a pioneering ophthalmologist and the first African-American woman doctor to patent a medical invention.
- Born: November 4, 1942 in Harlem, New York
- Parents: Rupert and Gladys Bath
- Education: Hunter College, Howard University
- Awards and Honors: New York Academy of Medicine John Stearns Medal for Distinguished Contributions in Clinical Practice, American Medical Women’s Association Hall of Fame, Hunter College Hall of Fame, Association of Black Women Physicians Lifetime Achievement Award
- Notable Quote: “My love of humanity and passion for helping others inspired me to become a physician.”
Bath was born in Harlem, New York, on November 4, 1942. Her father Rupert was a newspaper columnist and trader, and her mother Gladys was a housekeeper. Bath and her brother attended Charles Evans Hughes High School in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. Bath was deeply interested in science and, while she was still a teenager, won a scholarship from the National Science Foundation; her research at the Harlem Hospital Center resulted in a published paper.
Bath went on to study chemistry at Hunter College, graduating in 1964. She then moved to Washington, D.C., to complete her medical training at the Howard University College of Medicine. Bath graduated with honors in 1968 and returned to New York to complete specialty training in ophthalmology and cornea transplant at both New York University and Columbia University. According to an interview she later completed for the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Bath faced many challenges in this early part of her career:
“Sexism, racism, and relative poverty were the obstacles which I faced as a young girl growing up in Harlem. There were no women physicians I knew of and surgery was a male-dominated profession; no high schools existed in Harlem, a predominantly black community; additionally, blacks were excluded from numerous medical schools and medical societies; and, my family did not possess the funds to send me to medical school.”
At the Harlem Hospital Center, Bath focused on finding treatments for blindness and visual impairment. In 1969, she and several other doctors performed the hospital’s first eye surgery.
Bath used her personal experience as a medical professional to publish a paper demonstrating higher rates of blindness among African Americans. Her observations led her to develop a new field of study known as “community ophthalmology;” it was based on her recognition that blindness was more common among under-served populations both in the United States and around the world. Bath has supported community health initiatives aimed at reducing blindness within these communities through preventative care and other measures.
Bath served on the faculty of UCLA for many years before retiring in 1993. She has lectured at many medical institutions, including the Howard University School of Medicine, and published numerous papers about her research and inventions.
Cataract Laserphaco Probe
Bath’s dedication to the treatment and prevention of blindness led her to develop the Cataract Laserphaco Probe. Patented in 1988, the probe was designed to use the power of a laser to quickly and painlessly vaporize cataracts from patients’ eyes, replacing the more common method of using a grinding, drill-like device to remove the afflictions. Bath’s device is now used around the world to treat patients with blindness.
In 1977, Bath founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AIPB). The organization supports the training of medical professionals and the treatment of individuals with eye problems around the world. As a representative of the AIPB, Bath has participated in humanitarian missions to developing countries, where she has provided treatment to numerous individuals. One of her favorite experiences in this capacity, she says, was traveling to North Africa and treating a woman who had been blind for 30 years. The AIPB also supports preventative care, including supplying children around the world with protective eye drops, vitamin A supplements, and vaccinations for diseases that can cause blindness.
To date, Bath has received five separate patents for her inventions. The first two—both awarded in 1988—relate to her revolutionary cataract probe. Others include:
- “Laser apparatus for surgery of cataractous lenses” (1999): Another laser apparatus, this invention provided a way to remove cataracts by making a micro-incision and applying radiation.
- “Pulsed ultrasound method for fragmenting/emulsifying and removing cataractous lenses” (2000): This invention uses ultrasonic energy to remove cataracts.
- “Combination ultrasound and laser method and apparatus for removing cataract lenses” (2003): A synthesis of Bath’s two previous inventions, this one uses both ultrasonic energy and laser radiation for even more precise removal of cataracts. The invention also includes a unique “optical fiber delivery system” for the transmission of the ultrasonic vibrations and radiation.
With these inventions, Bath was able to restore sight to people who had been blind for over 30 years.
Bath also holds patents for her inventions in Japan, Canada, and Europe.
Achievements and Honors
In 1975, Bath became the first African-American woman surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center and the first woman to be on the faculty of the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute. She is the founder and first president of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. Bath was elected to the Hunter College Hall of Fame in 1988 and was named a Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine in 1993. In 2018, she was awarded the New York Academy of Medicine John Stearns Medal for Distinguished Contributions in Clinical Practice.
- Montague, Charlotte. “Women of Invention: Life-Changing Ideas by Remarkable Women.” Chartwell Books, 2018.
- Wilson, Donald, and Jane Wilson. “The Pride of African American History: Inventors, Scientists, Physicians, Engineers: Featuring Many Outstanding African Americans and More than 1,000 African American Inventions Verified by U.S. Patent Numbers.” DCW Pub. Co., 2003.
Bellis, Mary. “Biography of Patricia Bath, American Doctor and Inventor.” ThoughtCo, May. 5, 2019, thoughtco.com/patricia-bath-profile-1991374.