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Patricia Bath – A history to be learned, a legacy to be remembered


Patricia Bath – A history to be learned, a legacy to be remembered

By Erika Jefferson, President & Founder, Black Women in Science & Engineering (BWISE)

Every February and March, the world puts a spotlight on Black history and women’s history. This is because these stories have been left out of the history books and our collective consciousness for far too long. This is particularly true when looking at science.

In 2015, I founded Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE)  to support underrepresented women in science and engineering and to bridge the leadership gap through networking, mentorship and career development. These actions are a vital part of being a successful scientist today. But so is learning about our shared history, which is why I am interested in showcasing the story of a remarkable scientist, ophthalmologist, inventor and humanitarian – Dr. Patricia Bath (1942-2019).

Originally from New York, NY, USA, Dr. Bath was the recipient of a National Science Foundation scholarship while in high school. She received her undergraduate degree at Hunter College, USA and graduated from Howard University College of Medicine, USA before completing a fellowship at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, USA, where she studied blindness and visual impairment. Bath was the first African American to do an ophthalmology residency at New York University, USA after which she joined the faculty of UCLA Medical Center, USA where she would co-found and become the first woman to lead an ophthalmology residency program.  

Bath held five patents – including one for the groundbreaking Laserphaco Probe – and lectured internationally. She authored over 100 papers and received numerous recognitions throughout her career. But she is also remembered for her humanitarian activities. In 1976, she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AiPB), a non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of blindness through education, community service, research and compassionate eye care services. This trailblazing physician has been nominated an incredible 11 times to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and if admitted, would be the only Black woman out of 603 inventors. The Induction ceremony will take place in October 2021 in Washington, DC.

We can and we must do better to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of incredible scientists like Patricia Bath. As Dr. Bath mentions in this interview, she hopes her work will inspire the next generation to continue her drive to advance science for the benefit of humankind.

There is excellence all around us that needs to be recognized and celebrated every day. I encourage students and early career professionals to engage with opportunities like the OSA DiversiWiki program to help raise the visibility of underrepresented scientists. Focus on networking with and supporting others in the field through programs like the OSA Technical Groups or organizations like BWISE.

I am fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Dr. Eraka Bath, UCLA, a trailblazer and daughter of Dr. Bath.

Here are excerpts of our conversation:

Did you grow up hearing your mom talk about her work?

Absolutely. My mom was a single parent and I am an only child. So many times I would have to go with her to the office, hospital and on conferences and trips. And so I was very much raised in the medical field. Like many kids, I had the fantasy of growing up and dreaming to be a doctor that of course would change back and forth over the years. I think that I grew up having a good appreciation for her commitment to community service, to the community and who she was serving, where she was working and thinking about underserved, under resourced populations.

What do you think is your mother's proudest accomplishment?

I would say two things. Her inventions as a laser scientist and the mother of laser cataract surgery, she successfully advanced the field of ophthalmology. My mother also coined the phrase, “community ophthalmology,” which would later become an academic discipline. She collaborated with ophthalmologists in China, Pakistan and Nigeria. She also participated in international meetings around blindness and preventable blindness. Thinking about eye-sight as a basic human right and trying to apply a public health frame to visual, inequities.



Both you and your mother attended a Historically Black College and University  (HBCU), do you think that played a role in shaping some of your mother's passions with ophthalmology?

Absolutely, Howard is the Mecca of Black excellence or one of them, and HBCUs are critical for training Black scientists and Black physicians. My mother had a mentor there named Lois Jones. She was African American woman ophthalmologist. She really inspired my mother to go into ophthalmology. Jones’ mentorship encouraged me to do similar work.

Your mother was concerned about what was lost as a result of exclusionary practices in STEM, even testifying before the US Congress. Can you share more on her views on inequality in STEM?

She was concerned about a phenomenon called the “Matilda Effect,” where men get credit for women's ideas. She even testified on this before the US Congress. She experienced a lot of intersectional bias, both being Black and being a woman. Some of her greatest challenges were having equity in terms of recognition as a scientist, and as a female scientist.

What did she think about being the first African American female to receive a patent for medical purposes for her inventions?

I think she enjoyed being first and breaking barriers. What was hard were the responses of some in the ophthalmology community to discredit her success. When she presented it, everyone was like, “Ooh, ah”, and then it seemed like revisionism took over and there was this sort of separating her from her achievement. So I think that was the hard part.  She was excited about the achievement and the success, because she's really trying to have a medical innovation that's going to have massive impact on population health.

Why is it important for your mother’s work to be celebrated and how can we carry on her legacy?

It is really important to tell these stories of everyday excellence. She was extraordinary and beyond everyday excellence, but to normalize the narrative of Black success and Black excellence and showcase them for not only my generation, but all generations. The image of who is a scientist, who is an inventor and who is a doctor. There is an expression, “you have to see it to be it”. So having her be celebrated and recognized, the most impact is going to be on children and communities.

She continues to inspire so many children, medical students and adults by her story of persistence, her passion,grit and hustle. Dr. Bath was poised and very elegant. She was a young woman in the sixties and inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and growing up in Harlem. She also participated in some of our pillars of Black excellence, attending HBCUs and being an AKA. So all those things really helped shaped her. She's a great role model for Black women.




About Erika Jefferson: Erika is the President and Founder of Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE), an organization focused on bridging the leadership gap for Black women in STEM.  She received a MBA from Georgia Tech and a BS in Chemical Engineering from LSU.




About Eraka Bath: Eraka Bath, M.D., is an Associate Professor in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Vice Chair for Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute in the David Geffen School of Medicine. She is board certified in child and adolescent, adult and forensic psychiatry. Dr. Bath obtained her undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, her medical degree at Howard University College of Medicine and completed her general psychiatry training at Saint Vincents Hospital in Manhattan, an affiliate of New York Medical College. She completed her fellowships in child psychiatry and forensic psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine where she was on the faculty prior to returning to California to join the faculty at UCLA.



Posted: 19 March 2021 by Erika Jefferson, President & Founder, Black Women in Science & Engineering (BWISE) | with 0 comments

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