Profiles of Women Working In STEM

Patricia E. Bath

Ophthalmologist and Laser Scientist

Dr. Patricia E. Bath, ophthalmologist and laser scientist, was 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. 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. 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.

As a young intern shuttling between Harlem Hospital and Columbia University, Bath was quick to observe that at the eye clinic in Harlem half the patients were blind or visually impaired. At the eye clinic at Columbia, by contrast, there were very few obviously blind patients. This observation led her to conduct a retrospective epidemiological study, which documented that blindness among African-Americans was double that among whites. She reached the conclusion that the high prevalence of blindness among African-Americans was due to lack of access of ophthalmic care. As a result, she proposed a new discipline, known as community ophthalmology, which is now operative worldwide. Community ophthalmology combines aspects of public health, community medicine, and clinical ophthalmology to offer primary care to underserved populations.

Dr. Bath was also a laser scientist and inventor. 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 use worldwide.

Dr. Bath’s greatest passion, however, continued to be fighting blindness until her death in May 2019.

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