Celebrating African American History Month With Role Models In STEM: Dr. Patricia Bath

As a girl growing up in the 1950s in Harlem, X-STEM Speaker Dr. Patricia Bath became fascinated by newspaper accounts of the humanitarian work of Dr. Albert Schweitzer (who treated lepers in Africa). That, coupled with encouragement and motivation from her family doctor and her parents, fueled her desire to become a physician.

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She would not only go on to fulfill her dream, but make medical history as well. Dr. Bath, a noted ophthalmologist and laser scientist, is especially known for discovering and inventing the revolutionary device and technique for cataract surgery known as the laserphaco. The device, technically called the laserphaco probe, was conceived by Dr. Bath in 1981 and dramatically improved the way cataracts (the cloudy blemishes that form in the lens of a person's eye) are surgically removed worldwide, and later led to Lasik and other surgical advancements in ophthalmology.

Tenacious as well as talented, she also became the first female ophthalmologist in 1974 to be appointed to the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine Jules Stein Eye Institute, and in 1983, the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the U.S. In addition, Dr. Bath is the creator of the emerging discipline of medicine known as "community ophthalmology," and today serves as president of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AiPB) where she advocates for the blind and visually impaired.

In addition, she is passionate about motivating students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). For example, in 2012 she developed a science app for young learners called ilaser, which is designed to introduce them to laser science. The app can be used via the iPad and iPhone and brings laser science discovery to classrooms worldwide.

But Patricia's path to medicine was not an easy one. Sexism, racism, and relative poverty were the obstacles she faced as a young girl growing up in Harlem. Patricia recalls those times: "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." She adds that her mother scrubbed floors so she could go to medical school.

But Patricia excelled in her studies in high school, earning awards for scientific research as early as age sixteen. She did equally well in college, which -- in addition to the sacrifices of her parents -- contributed to her being admitted to Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC where she received her medical degree.

After medical school graduation, she completed a fellowship in corneal transplantation and keratoprosthesis (replacing the human cornea with an artificial one), which stirred her interest in ophthalmology. This curiosity was cemented when as a young intern shuttling between Harlem Hospital and Columbia University she observed 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 blacks was double that among whites. She reached the conclusion that the high prevalence of blindness among blacks 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.

But it was her invention of the laserphaco -- a laser probe -- that would especially seal her place in medical history. The laserphaco probe vaporizers the cataract and lens matter within a few minutes. The decomposed lens is then extracted when liquid supplied by the irrigation line washes through and is sucked out through the aspiration tube, and a replacement lens is inserted. Before Patricia's technological advance, cataract removal involved the manual grinding of the cataract.

In addition to her pioneering achievements in medicine and research, Patricia is also known as an advocate for blindness prevention, treatment, and cure. 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.

In 1993, Patricia 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 healthcare is limited. She has held positions in telemedicine at Howard University and St. George's University in Grenada.

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