Ophthalmologist and inventor Dr. Patricia Bath was inspired as a young girl by newspaper stories about Dr. Albert Schweitzer and his treatment of people with leprosy in the Congo. After earning her medical degree she began a fellowship at Columbia University focused on ophthalmology.
Bath began to notice a discrepancy in eye care and that racial minorities and poor populations were much less likely to receive needed services. She learned that African Americans were twice as likely to suffer from blindness than her other patients and eight times more likely to develop glaucoma.
To address this issue she persuaded her professors at Columbia to operate, at no cost, on blind patients at Harlem Hospital Center which had been unable to offer this treatment. In doing so Bath pioneered the worldwide discipline of “community ophthalmology” which is a volunteer based outreach to bring necessary eye care to underserved populations. Co-founding the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1977, she also served as president of this group that believes that eyesight is a basic human right.
As part of her drive to help more people retain their visual abilities Dr. Bath envisioned a way to use technology to improve cataract treatment. Cataracts are cloudy blemishes that can form in the lenses of the eye which can lead to blindness. Previously the removal surgery had been performed manually using a mechanical grinder a harsh and sometimes risky procedure.
Conceptualized in 1981, the Laserphaco Probe is a surgical tool that uses a laser to vaporize cataracts using a tiny 1-millimeter insertion into the patient’s eye. After vaporization of the cataract and lens this material is gently removed and a replacement lens inserted. Bath’s idea was ahead of the technology of the time and it took more than five years for her to develop the concept and apply for a patent which was granted in 1988. This treatment is considered faster, more accurate, and minimally invasive and has been shown able to restore sight to people that have been blind for over 30 years.
Written by Angela Goad