Patricia Bath, cataract treatment inventor, dies at 76
NEW YORK — Patricia E. Bath, an ophthalmologist who took a special interest in combating blindness in underserved populations and along the way became the first black female doctor to patent a medical invention, a laser device to treat cataracts, died May 30, in San Francisco. She was 76.
Her daughter, Eraka, said she had died after a brief illness.
Dr. Bath was an educator and researcher as well as a physician. She began her medical career in New York and in 1974 joined the faculties of the University of California Los Angeles, and the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in that city.
When she was just out of medical school, working as an intern at Harlem Hospital and then at an eye clinic at Columbia University, she noticed discrepancies in vision problems between the largely black patient population at Harlem and the largely white one at Columbia. Her observations led her to document that blindness was twice as prevalent among black people as among white people — findings that instilled in her a lifelong commitment to bringing quality eye care to those who might not otherwise have access to it.
In the early 1980s, her work with cataract patients and related research led her to envision the device that became known as the laserphaco probe, which uses laser technology to remove cataracts, which cloud the lens of the eye.
“When she first conceived of the device in 1981, her idea was more advanced than the technology available,” according to a biography of Dr. Bath in Changing the Face of Medicine, an online exhibition of the National Library of Medicine. “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 [in] use worldwide.”
The Patent and Trademark Office said in a 2014 news release the device had “helped restore or improve vision to millions of patients worldwide.”
By the time her patent for the device was approved in 1988, Dr. Bath was well along in her quest to bring eye care to people with limited access to health care. In 1976, she was a founder of the nonprofit American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, along with Alfred Cannon, a psychiatrist, and Aaron Ifekwunigwe, a pediatrician. The organization has promoted what Dr. Bath called community ophthalmology, which advances optic health through grass-roots screenings, treatments, and education.
In an interview for the Changing the Face of Medicine exhibition, Dr. Bath described her “personal best moment”: using an implant procedure called keratoprosthesis to restore the sight of a woman in North Africa who had been blind for 30 years.
“The ability to restore sight is the ultimate reward,” she said.
Patricia Era Bath was born in Harlem. Her father, Rupert, an immigrant from Trinidad, was a motorman for the New York subway system. Her mother, Gladys, worked as a housekeeper and, Dr. Bath often said, sparked her interest in science by buying her a chemistry set when she was a girl.
“When we would play nurse and doctor, I didn’t want to be forced to play the role of the nurse,’’ she told Time magazine. “I wanted to be the one with the stethoscope, the one who gave the injections, the one in charge.”
She studied chemistry and physics at Hunter College in Manhattan and received her medical degree at Howard University in Washington in 1968. She then returned to New York to intern at Harlem Hospital and a fellowship at Columbia, setting the stage for her insights into the racial disparities in statistics on blindness.
After Dr. Bath relocated to Los Angeles, she became the first woman on the faculty of the department of ophthalmology at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA. She was, she said, offered an office in the basement next to the animal laboratory.
“I didn’t say it was racist or sexist,” she said. “I said it was inappropriate and succeeded in getting acceptable office space.”
In conducting her research for the laserphaco probe, Dr. Bath took a sabbatical in Europe in part, according to the exhibition biography, to escape racism and sexism in the American academic and scientific worlds. Even when the device succeeded, her achievement was not universally celebrated.
“There was not acceptance,” she told Time, “and in some instances there was anger that petite moi, little me, had indeed shattered the glass ceiling, had a scientific breakthrough.”