(Originally posted 3/14/17 on Read With The Gringa)
If the dear reader is anything like the gringa, you often take for granted amazing things, never wondering how they came about in the first place. Take lasers, for example. Most of us use lasers every day. There are laser toys for cats, laser printers and lasers used to heal people and to kill people. Although lasers are used for many purposes, they are all, essentially, the same thing: a focused beam of light or electromagnetic radiation. This beam is created by stimulating photon emissions from excited atoms. Next time you check out at the grocery store, just remember that bar code scanner is a very “excited” device!
Many years ago one of the gringa’s loved ones had eye surgery. It was a laser that sliced and diced those very dear orbs. It never occurred to the gringa at the time to even wonder who should be thanked for this amazing technology that saved and improved my mother-in-law’s vision. Well, now I know and I’m going to share this incredible woman’s story.
Dr. Patricia Bath has a lot of “firsts” on her resume. She was the first African American to complete an opthalmology residency. She was also the first female, African American doctor to have a medical patent. She got this for her invention that changed Mama’s eyes forever, the Laserphaco Probe. This device removed cataracts from the eyes of my caveman’s precious mother, enabling her to continue to see her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and do what she loves to do, sew, sew, sew.
What is most amazing about Dr. Bath’s achievements is when she did them. She was born in Harlem, New York in 1942. That means she grew up and received her primary education more than 20 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed in the U.S. In an environment like that, what might have occurred to capture the attention of a little girl from Harlem and inspire her to become a doctor? Dr. Bath credits Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s service to lepers in the Congo along with the powerful influence of loving parents who fueled her own, personal empowerment engine.
What kind of parents does it take to do this incredible service for their child? Were they superhuman? Educators? They were parents, period. Rupert Bath, Dr. Bath’s father, was a well-educated immigrant from Trinidad. He had a “first” to list in his own biography. He became the first black motorman employed by New York City’s subway system. He has an interesting background that includes writing newspaper columns and working as a merchant seaman which gave him the opportunity to travel all over the world. These experiences enabled a father to craft a legacy for his child that lasted a lifetime, the legacy of a broad mind.
Dr. Bath’s mother, Gladys, encouraged her daughter to read, read, read. Books were a priority as well as a gift that soon became a favorite, a chemistry set. Gladys was an American of African slave and Cherokee ancestry and she was determined that her children (Dr. Bath had a brother) would have the best education possible. She scrubbed the floors of affluent New Yorkers to fund her children’s college dreams.
Dr. Bath’s neighborhood was well-known for its poverty. However, for Bath, riches didn’t come in nickels and dimes, but in values, the love of family and the opportunity to grow through learning. And eventually, the medical world would become this little girl’s oyster through determination, belief in herself, and hours upon hours of dedication and hard work.
As a young teenager, she showed such promise at a summer science program that two medical professionals doing cancer research took her under their wings, becoming her mentors. Her own research earned her an invitation to present her research at an international nutrition conference in Washington DC. This earned her a 1960 Merit Award and a bit of celebrity status, her achievement being reported in magazine and newspaper articles.
It wouldn’t be until 1964 that Dr. Bath experienced studying under a black professor for the first time. It was a thrilling experience. She soon received a government fellowship which enabled her to participate in pediatrics medicine research in Yugoslavia. This was her first experience outside the U.S. and sparked a new interest in the medical needs of people throughout the world, especially the underprivileged. True to her principles, in 1968 she became coordinator for the Poor People’s Campaign that marched for economic rights in the nation’ capital. She would eventually shoulder the responsibility of the health and sanitary needs for the thousands who lived in the shantytown known as Resurrection City.
Eventually, recognizing the vast differences in quality and accessibility of care between the “haves” and “have nots”, Dr. Bath convinced her professors to perform eye surgery on blind patients for free, she volunteering as assistant surgeon. Dr. Bath would continue her growth as a surgeon doing post-graduate work in cornea transplants.
This would lead to the 1974 “first” previously mentioned, becoming the first female faculty member at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. Despite this illustrious achievement, the office she was offered, in the basement with the lab animals, was seen as a slight. Dr. Bath stood up for herself and the institute quickly responded by giving her new office space more appropriate for her prestigious position.
Nearly a decade later, 1983, Dr. Bath achieved another “first”. She became chair of UCLA’s Opthalmology Residency Training Program. As an American woman, she was the first to hold this position.
Through Dr. Bath’s American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, Americans everywhere can receive basic eye care regardless of how poor they may be. Throughout the world newborns have their eyesight protected with medication provided by the institute that prevents common infections. Malnourished children in every country have access to vitamin A supplements to protect their eyes from damage caused by lack of proper nutrition. Vaccinations for infectious diseases known to cause blindness are also made available to vulnerable populations around the world.
When Dr. Bath sought to create a device to make cataract removal surgery less invasive and more precise, her colleagues told her it couldn’t be done. But she showed them, didn’t she! Her scope was not just patented in the US, but also in Japan, Canada and five European countries.
Even after Dr. Bath retired, she was still achieving historical “firsts”. In 1993 she became the first woman to be elected to UCLA Medical Center’s honorary medical staff. And throughout her retirement, her passion to prevent blindness has never ceased. Perhaps it is a fire that will never die, fueled by the amazing experience of restoring sight to a North African woman who had been blind for 30 years.
Dr. Bath overcame amazing odds and obstacles. Although she was certainly ambitious, the gringa is most impressed with her motives and philosophy which drove her ambitions. She is quoted as saying:
“Eyesight is a basic human right.”
This was the philosophy behind her creation of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976. Ten years later she revealed to the world the goods on her philosophy, the Laserphaco Probe. Officially patented in 1988, Dr. Bath became the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent.
No matter what you think may stand in your way, Dr. Bath is proof positive that, with the right motives and inspiration behind your ambition, work hard and you can move mountains and achieve great things. Take to heart the words of encouraging wisdom from Dr. Bath:
“Believe in the power of the truth. Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking. Remember that the limits of science are not the limits of imagination.”
The world needs so many scientists to solve the problems facing the world today. Compassion driven science can change the world for the better, making every day a better day than the one before. The gringa says, “Thank you” to all the Dr. Bath’s in the world. We need more of you!
Image Credit: Biography
Video Credit: LemelsonCenter