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Dr. Patricia Bath: The Trailblazing Doctor Who Saved The Sight Of Millions

Dr. Patricia Bath was an early pioneer of laser eye surgery whose cataract-removal invention has saved the vision of millions of people around the world.

A Renaissance woman in the world of vision, the pioneering ophthalmologist Dr. Patricia Bath not only founded the discipline of community ophthalmology to help underserved populations  have better access to vision care, she invented a device that quickly and easily dissolves cataracts, becoming the first black female physician to receive a medical patent. Her invention of the Laserphaco Probe was recognized by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2014 as "one of the most important developments in the field of ophthalmology" for having "helped restore or improve vision to millions of patients worldwide." A trailblazer for both women and African-Americans in medicine, Bath always considered the people she helped her greatest accomplishment, asserting that "the ability to restore vision is the ultimate reward."

Bath was born in Harlem, New York in 1942. Her father, a Trinidadian immigrant, worked as a merchant seaman and taught her a love of travel and world cultures. Her mother, who traced her ancestry back to both African slaves and Cherokee Native Americans, taught her to love books and reading, and encouraged her early interest in science with a chemistry set. Bath excelled at school, and her parents reminded her not to take the opportunity to get an education for granted. "[My parents] believed that with enough education, I could own the world," she said.

In high school, Bath discovered a new love: biology. She won multiple science awards and was selected for a National Science Foundation summer program, where her work with Rabbi Moses D. Tendler and Dr. Robert O. Bernard ended up becoming part of a published joint scientific paper in 1960. She finished high school in two and a half years and set her sights on a medical degree. After receiving a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Hunter College, she attended Howard University's School of Medicine.

Following medical school, Bath was interning in ophthalmology at both Columbia University and Harlem Hospital in the late 1960s when she noticed that black patients were twice as likely to lose their sight as white patients. She conducted an epidemiological study that determined this disparity was due to a lack of access to eye care, a revelation which later inspired her to found the discipline of community ophthalmology. She also convinced her professors at Columbia University to start performing ophthalmological surgeries at Harlem Hospital free of charge; prior to that, no eye surgeries had been performed there. Bath volunteered as the assistant surgeon, and was present for the first eye surgery ever performed there.

Although Bath had already proved her skills as an ophthalmologist, she still faced obstacles because of her sex and race. In 1975, she became the first female faculty member at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute; however, she recalled in an interview, "I was offered an office in the basement next to the lab animals, which I refused. I didn't say it was racist or it was sexist. I said it was inappropriate and succeeded in getting acceptable office space." By 1983, she had become the chair of the Ophthalmology Residency Training Program at Drew/UCLA, making her the first woman in the country to hold such a position.

To advance her goal of reducing blindness worldwide, she founded the field of community ophthalmology in 1976. This approach, which combines community medicine, public health, and clinical ophthalmology, is now used in many communities around the world to help ensure that people have access to eye care regardless of income. As part of these efforts, she cofounded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AIPB) in 1976, declaring that "eyesight is a basic human right." The AIPB set up both local and global programs to prevent eye infections in newborns, ensure malnourished children receive vitamin A supplements to protect their vision, and conduct screening for eye problems like cataracts and glaucoma. With these methods, many people, both children and adults, who would have lost some or all of their visions were protected.

Bath became an inventor in 1981 when she conceived of a new way to treat cataracts, the cloudiness in an eye's lens which is one of the leading causes of blindness. At the time, cataract surgery required manually removing the clouded lens and inserting an artificial one, which was both difficult and costly. Bath envisioned using a laser to break up the cataract, which would be less invasive, faster, and easier. "When I talked to people about it, they said it couldn't be done," she reflected. Undeterred, she traveled to Germany to test her Laserphaco Probe, which she patented in 1986, making her the first African-American woman to hold a patent for a medical device. She continued improving her probe over time, and on a number of occasions, restored sight to people who had been functionally blind for decades.

Bath retired in 1993, but continued to advocate with the AIPB, as well as for other causes, including telemedicine, long after. She died from cancer-related computations on May 30, 2019 at the age of 76, leaving a worldwide legacy of community vision care and a personal legacy full of "firsts" as both a woman and an African American. She always hoped, though, that a day was coming when sex and race would no longer be a factor in telling a person's story. "Hater-ation, segregation, racism, that’s the noise — you have to ignore that and keep your eyes focused on the prize," she said. "Sometimes I want to say to people, just look at my work.... Hopefully, our society will come to that point."

Books About Patricia Bath and Pioneering Women of Science

I Can See Just Fine

I Can See Just Fine

Written by: Eric Barclay
Illustrated by: Eric Barclay
Recommended Age: 3 - 7

Paige is a normal girl... except her teachers and parents keep noticing that she doesn't seem to see properly. Despite her insistence that "I can see just fine," she can't read the board in class, her sheet music is upside down, and she even mistakes a skunk for a cat! When her mother takes the reluctant girl to the eye doctor, Paige gets a look at how optometrists assess vision — and the revelation when she puts on her first pair of glasses is astounding! Kids will giggle at this lighthearted book, while also learning about the importance of regular vision checks.

The Pirate of Kindergarten

The Pirate of Kindergarten

Written by: George Ella Lyon
Illustrated by: Lynne Avril
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Ginny loves kindergarten, but she has a problem: she sees two of everything. How is she supposed to figure out which of the chairs are real and which aren't? She loves to read, but it's hard when she sees the same line twice! Fortunately, a nurse doing vision checks diagnoses the problem and provides a solution: an eye patch. Irrepressible Ginny adopts it wholeheartedly, becoming the Pirate of Kindergarten! And it turns out that, with the help of her pirate patch, Ginny finds kindergarten much easier. Clever drawings from Lynne Avril that illustrate what it's like to see double will help readers empathize with kids like Ginny, and everyone will love her one-eyed flair!

The Doctor With An Eye For Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath

The Doctor With An Eye For Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath

Written by: Julia Finley Mosca
Illustrated by: Daniel Rieley
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

When Patricia Bath was coming of age, the intelligent young woman was determined to become a doctor, but she had many obstacles in her way: sexism, racism, and poverty all seemed to be working against her. Despite it all, she broke new ground for both women and African Americans in her chosen field of ophthalmology. In 1981, Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe, a quick and nearly painless way to treat cataracts — one which has now been used on millions of patients around the world! This inspiring story, which includes a note from Bath herself, highlights the power of fighting for a dream.

Women in Science

50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Women in Science

50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Written by: Rachel Ignotofsky
Recommended Age: 9 and up

This charmingly illustrated and educational book highlights the contributions of fifty notable women to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from the ancient to the modern world. Full of striking, singular art, this fascinating collection profiles well-known figures like primatologist Jane Goodall, as well as lesser-known pioneers like Patricia Bath, the ophthalmologist who changed public health attitudes to vision care and invented a device to improve cataract surgery. Women in Science celebrates the achievements of the intrepid women who have paved the way for the next generation of female engineers, biologists, mathematicians, doctors, astronauts, physicists, and more!

Magnificent Minds

16 Pioneering Women in Science and Medicine

Magnificent Minds

16 Pioneering Women in Science and Medicine

Written by: Pendred E. Noyce
Recommended Age: 12 and up

Though we know few of their names, throughout the centuries there have been women who defied their social roles to broaden our understanding of the world. In this book, which grew out of an exhibit in the Groller Club in New York, Pendred Noyce explores 16 of these daring and curious women who made their marks in the world of science and medicine. From Florence Nightingale's pioneering use of statistics to improve public health, to Lise Meitner's explanation of nuclear fission, to Ada Byron Lovelace's creation of the first computer algorithm, these intriguing portraits capture both the importance of their work, but also the spirit and dreams of these groundbreaking women. For even more stories of groundbreaking women in science, check out the follow-up volume Remarkable Minds: 17 More Pioneering Women in Science and Medicine.

Bold Women of Medicine

21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs

Bold Women of Medicine

21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs

Written by: Susan M. Latta
Recommended Age: 12 and up

From 19th century battlefield nurses Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale, to modern medical miracle workers like Dr. Catherine Hamlin and Dr. Bonnie Simpson Mason, women have long played a key role in medicine — but their contributions have often been downplayed or forgotten. In this fascinating new title from the Women of Action series, readers get to meet some of the daring and trailblazing women of the past two hundred years of medicine. These women defied prejudices and expectations, created incredible new procedures, and devoted their lives to healing people around the world.

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And The World

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – And The World

Written by: Rachel Swaby
Recommended Age: 13 and up

Learn the often neglected stories of women in science with these 52 engaging capsule biographies! Spanning centuries of courageous thinkers, author Rachel Swaby celebrates women whose specializations range from biology to physics to engineering, from famous names like Sally Ride and Ada Lovelace to lesser-known women like Stephanie Kwolek and Chien-Shiung Wu. While each individual's biography runs for only a few pages, Swaby has done an impressive job of conveying the essence of each scientist's life and work into the profiles, while her light tone urges readers to learn more about each of these groundbreaking women.

Women in Science: 100 Postcards

Women in Science: 100 Postcards

Manufacturer: Ten Speed Press
Recommended Age: 6 and up

Celebrate the trailblazers of Rachel Ignotofsky's best-selling book Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World with these beautiful and inspiring postcards! 2 copies each of 50 different illustrations from the book, featuring well-known figures like Marie Curie and unsung heroes like Patricia Bath, are perfect for sending to friends, displaying as mini art, and more.

Optical Science

Optical Science

Manufacturer: Thames & Kosmos
Recommended Age: 8 and up

There's a lot of science that goes into how we see! In this kit from Thames & Kosmos, kids will explore human visual perception with 25 hands-on experiments. First, you'll learn about light and color with projects like a color wheel and a camera obscura. Then you'll find out more about how the eye and the brain work together to understand our world, with projects like an Ames room model and other optical illusions. Everything you need is included, along with a 48-page full-color manual with both directions and fascinating facts.

Women in Science - Patricia Bath Poster

Women in Science - Patricia Bath Poster

Manufacturer: Rachel Ignotofsky
Recommended Age: 3 and up

This poster celebrates Patricia Bath, the pioneering ophthalmologist and first African-American woman to receive a medical patent! Bath's laserphaco probe for cataract removal has saved people's vision around the world, and her development of volunteer-based outreach programs to bring eye care to impoverished people truly acted on her belief that "eyesight is a basic human right." This poster from Rachel Ignotofsky's Women in Science series is available in 8X10, 11X14, and 16X20 inch sizes.

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