Image courtesy of NIH U.S. National Library of Medicine

Those are the words Dr. Patricia Bath heard from her parents many times while growing up. Could her parents have known that Dr. Bath’s “best” would lead to an outstanding career in ophthalmology, academia, and humanitarian work? What’s more, Dr. Bath achieved notable firsts for women and African Americans in the medical field.

Dr. Bath didn’t wait to grow up to excel. In high school, after winning a National Science Foundation Scholarship, she participated in a cancer research study at Yeshiva University and Harlem Hospital Center. As part of her research, she discovered a mathematical equation that could predict cancer cell growth. Her findings were published in a scientific paper and shared at the International Fifth Congress of Nutrition in 1960. Dr. Bath was 18 years old.

While studying at Howard University Medical Center, she received a Children's Bureau National Government Fellowship Award to do research in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Upon graduation with honors from Howard University College of medicine, Dr. Bath was awarded the Edwin Watson Prize for Excellence in Ophthalmology. As she was graduating, Dr. Bath organized her fellow medical students in providing volunteer health care services to the Poor People's Campaign in Resurrection City.

Dr. Bath served an internship at Harlem Hospital Center, where she observed large proportions of blind patients. Harlem Hospital Center did not have an ophthalmologist on staff, but she was able to persuade doctors from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons to operate on blind patients at Harlem Hospital at no charge. From there, Dr. Bath became the first African American to serve a residency in ophthalmology at New York University.

Dr. Bath then traveled west to become the first woman ophthalmologist on the faculty at Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA, where she became chair of ophthalmology. Her love of research eventually led her to leave that post to lecture internationally and author more than 100 papers. Dr. Bath’s research took her to the Rothschilde Eye Institute of Paris and the Laser Medical Center in Berlin where she conducted experiments in laser cataract surgery. In 1988, she developed and patented the Laserphaco Probe, making her the first African-American woman to receive a patent for a medical purpose. Dr. Bath went on to gain four more patents for methods and apparatuses for cataract surgery.

Between 1995 and 2018, Dr. Bath received fourteen awards, including induction into the American Academy of Ophthalmology Museum of Vision for contributions to Ophthalmology and Time Magazine "Firsts: Women Who Are Changing the World” for being the first to invent and demonstrate laserphaco cataract surgery. Her humanitarian efforts with The American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness sent her around the world to provide newborns with free eye drops, vitamins, and vaccinations against diseases that can cause blindness. Back in the U.S., Dr. Bath testified at a Senate hearing to show the gender disparities in the STEM field and lack of female inventors. Dr. Patricia Bath certainly gave us her best, and we honor her legacy.

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