Dr. Patricia Bath, ophthalmologic surgeon, inventor, and activist for patients’ rights, was born in Harlem, New York in 1942, the daughter of Rupert Bath, an educated and well-traveled merchant seaman, and Gladys Bath, a homemaker and housecleaner. They were loving and supportive parents who encouraged their children to focus on education and believe in their dreams and ideas.
Thus Bath developed a love of books, travel and science. She excelled at school and began to show her aptitude in biology in high school where she became editor of the Charles Evans Hughes High School’s science paper and won numerous science awards. In fact, she was chosen in 1959 at the age of 16 to participate in a summer program offered by the National Science Foundation at Yeshiva University. She gained notoriety when, while working at Yeshiva, she derived a mathematical equation for predicting cancer cell growth. One of her mentors in the program, Dr. Robert O. Bernard, incorporated her findings into a paper he presented at an international conference held in Washington, D.C., in 1960.
Following this experience, Bath won a 1960 Merit Award fromMademoiselle magazine, completed high school in just two and a half years, and entered New York’s Hunter College to study chemistry and physics. She earned a B.A. from Hunter in 1964. From there Bath went to medical school at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Bath finished her M.D. in 1968 and returned to New York as an intern at Harlem Hospital, followed by a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University from 1969-70. During this time Bath began to notice differences among the patient population in hospitals she had worked in.
At Harlem Hospital, where there were many African American patients, nearly half were blind or visually impaired. But at Columbia Eye Clinic, the blindness rate was markedly lower. She conducted a study documenting her observation that blindness among blacks was nearly double the rate of blindness among whites. She concluded that this was largely due to many African Americans’ lack of access to ophthalmic care. With this finding Bath established a new discipline known as Community Ophthalmology, now studied and practiced worldwide. She also helped bring eye surgery services to Harlem Hospital’s Eye Clinic, which has since helped to treat and cure thousands of patients.
From this point on, Bath’s list of firsts continued to grow. She became the first African American resident at New York University where she finished her medical training in 1973. Meanwhile she also married and had a child, while completing a fellowship in 1974 in corneal and keratoporosthesis surgery.