Patricia Bath was born in Harlem, NY, in 1942. Her father was from Trinidad. Her mother’s ancestry stemmed from enslaved African Americans and the Cherokee nation. She was strongly supported by her parents in her educational pursuits and was identified as a National Science Foundation scholar while in high school. Her work on cancer research appeared on the front page of the New York Times.
Throughout her bachelor’s degree education at Hunter College and her subsequent medical studies at Howard University, she was often the first African American to be recognized by many different governmental and medical groups.
When Martin Luther King was assassinated, she dedicated her career to helping fulfill his dreams. She organized her fellow medical students to provide volunteer health services in poor neighborhoods.
When she was working as an intern at both Columbia University and at Harlem Hospital, Patricia noted a significantly higher rate of visual impairment among the predominantly black patients at Harlem Hospital. Concluding that this was the result of racial disparities in access to ophthalmic care, she decided to become an ophthalmologist.
In 1970 Patricia became the first African American ophthalmologist resident in the US. For most of her career she was the “first” in many different areas. As a surgeon, she was proud to have restored the sight for many people. She pioneered a worldwide concept of community ophthalmology that combined public health, community medicine, and ophthalmology. She created the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness with the mission based upon the principle that “eyesight was a basic human right”. This is a global effort which provides eye drops, vitamins, and vaccinations to prevent blindness.
Patricia was also an inventor. She was a laser scientist and invented a device for laser cataract surgery. She was the first African American woman to receive a patent for a medical device. Her technology is used worldwide. She was subsequently awarded additional patents for cataract surgery.
Patricia died at the age of 76 due to cancer-related issues. As remarkable as her career was, one has to wonder how many other “Dr. Baths” there might have been–or could still be out there, undetected. How many young people with talent still don’t have a chance to realize their potential?
Just imagine the wealth of talent we may have missed as a nation due to a lack of nurturing and lack of opportunity to develop innate talents. Just imagine a world where we saw it as our responsibility to develop the talents of all persons throughout society? What if we thought of health as a basic human right? What if we thought of improving the lives of all people as a vital social responsibility? As a nation we still haven’t come to agreement on these questions. But affirmative answers to these questions might motivate us to better nurture the talents of all people. Just imagine how one’s greatest legacy may be the way we support others with our talents.
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“Believe in the power of truth… Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking. Remember that the limits of science are not the same limits of imagination.” — Dr. Patricia Bath
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.