Dr. Patricia Bath: A Modern Female Visionary

“I hope that through my past legacy and future advocacy, that the current and future generations of young scientists will not experience the hurtful wounds of discrimination of any kind.” –Patricia Bath

Cataract, the clouding of the lens in your eye, affects us all. Just imagine, the beautiful and colorful world gradually blurs and disappears in your vision. By age 65, over 90% of Americans will develop cataracts. Cataracts contribute up to 5% of blindness in the U.S. with the African American community disproportionally affected.

It takes medical pioneers’ inspiration and perspiration to develop and improve treatments and cures for patients suffering from all kinds of diseases, including cataracts. Dr. Patricia Bath, the inventor behind the laserphaco cataract removal probe, is one leader among them.

Throughout her career, Dr. Bath was “the first” in many respects: Dr. Bath was the first African American resident in ophthalmology, completing her training at New York University School of Medicine in 1973. She went on to become the first woman faculty member in the ophthalmology department at UCLA in 1974.

In 1981, Dr. Bath first conceived the laserphaco probe, a medical device that uses lasers to remove cataracts in a way that minimizes invasion and risk. Her idea was more advanced than any technology available at the time. Dr. Bath spent five years of research and testing and immeasurable resources to make the idea a reality.

Dr. Bath understood her work’s worth. “I knew that was a groundbreaking discovery, so I immediately did file a patent,” she said. Thus, in 1988, Dr. Bath became the first African American female doctor to patent a medical invention. Dr. Bath used her patent-protected invention to restore the sight of people who had been blind for more than 30 years.

Always seen by her colleagues as “the nurse,” Dr. Bath surprised with her success. One colleague commented, “That’s impossible. People have been trying to do that for years”.

Dr. Bath says this mentality was one of her biggest obstacles. “There were no women physicians I knew of and surgery was a male-dominated profession.”

Despite this systemic sexism, Dr. Bath went on to secure three additional patents and expanded her laboratory work on the laserphaco probe into a life-long career. In fact, the laserphaco probe is still used to treat cataracts today. Dr. Bath also founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in Washington, D.C., a non-profit advocacy organization.

Dr. Bath’s hard work and perseverance has not only allowed the blind to see; it has inspired girls and women everywhere to follow their dreams – take the risk and make the impossible reality, even in the face of adversity.

Just as Dr. Bath said, “the narrative of surprise has to be changed.” A strong innovation ecosystem has the power to encourage more girls and women to envision, explore, and experiment – and receive well-deserved reward for their accomplishments. Then, one day, the world will cease to be surprised by what women can achieve.

Alex Zhao is an intern for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Innovation Policy Center. 

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