Encyclopedia Womannica

STEMinists: Patricia Bath

Episode Summary

Patricia Bath (1942-2019) was an early pioneer of laser cataract surgery. She was the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology, the first Black woman to receive a medical patent, and the first American woman to be named a chair of ophthalmology.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, Luisa Garbowit, and Carmen Borca-Carrillo.

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Episode Transcription

Hello, from Wonder Media Network, this is Encyclopedia Womannica. I’m Alie Ward, and I’m so excited to be guest hosting this episode. 

Today’s STEMinist was a groundbreaking research scientist who advocated for blindness prevention, treatment and cure. She was the first African-American to complete a residency in ophthalmology, the first Black woman to receive a medical patent, and the first American woman to be named a chair of ophthalmology. 

Let’s talk about Patricia E. Bath. 

Patricia Bath was born in Harlem on November 4, 1942. Her father, Rupert, was the first Black motorman for the New York City subway system. Her mother, Gladys, was a domestic worker, who put her own earnings towards her children’s education. 

Rupert had traveled the world as a merchant marine, and his stories of experiencing new cultures inspired Patricia to read about people and places far away from home. She was fascinated by Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who dedicated much of his life to treating leprosy in the Congo. Gladys, who could sense her daughter’s innate interest in science, bought Patricia her first chemistry set. 

At 16, Patricia was one of a handful of students chosen to attend a cancer research workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The head of the workshop, Dr. Robert Bernard, was so impressed by Patricia that he included her findings in a paper he presented at a conference.  

Patricia completed high school in just two years, and headed off to Hunter College, where she graduated in 1964. Patricia then attended Howard Medical School, in Washington, D.C. 

In 1968, medical degree in hand, Patricia accepted an internship back home, at Harlem Hospital. The following year, she also began pursuing a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. While shuttling between the hospital and the university, Patricia noticed a stark difference in the number of blind or seeing impaired patients at Harlem’s eye clinic compared to Columbia’s -- despite their close proximity. There was, however, one notable difference: Harlem’s patients were predominantly Black. Columbia’s were largely white. 

Curious, Patricia conducted a retrospective epidemiological study. She found that blindness among members of the Black community was double that of their white peers. Patricia concluded that high rates of blindness among African-Americans was largely due to the lack of access to care. She convinced physicians to offer surgeries at the Harlem clinic. And she proposed a new discipline: community ophthalmology. 

Community ophthalmology combines elements of public health, community medicine and clinical ophthalmology to support underserved communities. Volunteers were trained to screen for eye threatening conditions like glaucoma and cataracts, and sent to senior centers and daycare facilities. Kids in need of glasses were identified early, giving them a better chance at succeeding in school. Today, this discipline is practiced across the world. 

In 1970, Patricia began the final stage of her training, at New York University. She was the first African-American ophthalmology resident in American history. 

Soon after, Patricia married fellow physician Beny Primm. Their daughter, Ereka, was born in 1972. 

In 1974, Patricia and her family moved to California. The following year, she became the first woman faculty member in UCLA’s Ophthalmology department. The first office she was offered was in the basement -- next to the lab animals. 

She later said, "I didn't say it was racist or sexist. I said it was inappropriate and succeeded in getting acceptable office space. I decided I was just going to do my work." By 1983, Patricia was the chair of the department, the first woman in the U.S. to hold that position. 

In 1977, Patricia and several colleagues founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. Their belief was that sight was a basic human right. Patricia and her team traveled around the world, training volunteers, teaching, speaking and experiencing cultures vastly different than her own. It was the life she’d hoped for, as a girl growing up in Harlem. 

The most common cause of blindness that Patricia saw in her work were cataracts -- cloudy areas that develop in eye lenses. Even today, it’s a condition that, while treatable, is responsible for a third of blindness cases worldwide. 

In 1981, Patricia came up with a new device and method for treating cataracts -- the laserphaco [lazor-FAY-co] probe. The probe, a fiber optic laser surrounded by irrigation and suction tubes, would allow surgeons to essentially vaporize cataracts in a matter of minutes. Not only was the process rapidly sped up, but it minimized the amount of pain felt by patients.

At the time, Patricia’s concept outpaced available technology. She spent nearly five years conducting research, trials and development work. In 1988, she became the first Black woman doctor to receive a patent. Today, the probe is regularly used around the world, and revolutionized the way cataracts are treated. Over the course of her career, Patricia personally restored vision to several people who’d been blind for more than 30 years. 

In 1993, Patricia retired from her position at UCLA. She turned her focus to telemedicine, which can provide medical care to remote areas where access to such services is limited. She held positions in telemedicine at her alma mater, Howard University, and at St. George’s University in Grenada. In 2001, she was appointed to the International Women in Medicine Hall of Fame.

Patricia died on May 30, 2019, at the age of 76. 

All month on Encyclopedia Womannica, we’re talking about STEMININISTs. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

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Thanks for listening!