Patricia Bath, who helped pave the way for a generation of black female ophthalmologists, died May 30 at a hospital in San Francisco. She was 76. She was the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent after she invented a more precise treatment for cataracts
The cause was complications of cancer, said her daughter, Eraka Bath.
Dr. Bath was the first African American woman in her field to train at Columbia University’s medical school, where she completed a fellowship in 1970, and at NYU, where she finished her residency training in 1973.
She went on to join the ophthalmology team at UCLA Medical Center, where she became the first black female surgeon on staff and the first woman on the faculty of the Stein Eye Institute.
“I was offered an office in the basement next to the lab animals, which I refused,” she said later, according to a 2005 profile for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. “I didn’t say it was racist or it was sexist. I said it was inappropriate and succeeded in getting acceptable office space. I decided I was just going to do my work.”
In 1983, she was appointed chairwoman of the ophthalmology residency training program at UCLA and the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. Dr. Bath, who co-founded the program, was the first woman in the country to hold such a position.
“I had a few obstacles but I had to shake it off,” she told “Good Morning America” last year. “Hater-ation, segregation, racism, that’s the noise you have to ignore that and keep your eyes focused on the prize. It’s just like Dr. Martin Luther King said, so that’s what I did.”
Dr. Bath was concerned by epidemic levels of blindness from preventable causes among underserved, often minority communities in the United States and also in poor countries overseas. She identified that blacks had twice the prevalence of blindness and eight times the prevalence of blindness due to glaucoma in the United States.
In 1976 she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, declaring that “eyesight is a basic human right.”
Dr. Bath pioneered a new medical discipline, community ophthalmology, to deal with preventable blindness through education, public health outreach and local provision of medical services, and treated patients in countries including Nigeria and Pakistan.
In the 1980s, she joined in researching the use of lasers in ophthalmology. In 1988 she patented the Laserphaco Probe, short for “laser photoablative cataract surgery,” which uses a laser to dissolve cataracts. The device offered less painful cataract treatment and restored the sight of patients who had been blind for decades.
Patricia Era Bath was born in New York City on Nov. 4, 1942, and raised in Harlem. Her mother was a domestic worker, and her father was a Trinidadian immigrant who worked on the city subway system.
Dr. Bath won a National Science Foundation scholarship while a teenager, completed high school in 2 1/2 years and studied chemistry and physics at Hunter College in Manhattan. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1964, she attended Howard University’s medical school, where she was mentored by LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., a cancer specialist who died in May, and graduated in 1968.
In addition to her daughter, a UCLA psychiatrist, survivors include a brother and a granddaughter.
Dr. Bath held five U.S. patents and wrote more than 100 papers. She retired from UCLA in 1993 but continued to lecture and travel worldwide, and testified in April before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on female inventors and American innovation.
“Sometimes I want to say to people, just look at my work,” she said in the Smithsonian interview. “I’ve had technological obstacles, scientific obstacles, and obstacles being a woman. Yes, I’m interested in equal opportunities, but my battles are in science.”