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A Life of Firsts

Patricia Bath lived a life of firsts: the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology; the first woman to join the faculty of UCLA’s esteemed Jules Stein Eye Institute; the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent; and the first female chair of the Ophthalmology Residency Training program at UCLA-Drew (1). Most famously, Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe and pioneered laserphaco cataract surgery – a scientific breakthrough that has changed the way cataract surgery is performed all around the world.

In recognition, Bath is being honored posthumously on the National Women’s Hall of Fame (2). Founded in 1969, the National Women’s Hall of Fame celebrates women whose contributions have shaped the landscape of America. To date, “the Hall” has celebrated the lives of 276 women from many sectors, including the arts, athletics, business, and science.

Undoubtedly, Bath has left a lasting imprint on the field of ophthalmology. Not just a pioneer of cataract surgery, Bath also advocated for the implementation of better eyecare services in underserved communities. Having witnessed first-hand the disparities between the rates of blindness in Harlem Hospital and Columbia University during her internship, Bath established a new discipline – community ophthalmology – which delivered eye care to underserved patients. Bath also co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976, which established eyesight as a basic human right.

Although the scope of ophthalmology has changed since the development of the Laserphaco Probe in the 1980s – a time when Bath’s achievement was met with disbelief and even anger from some of her male colleagues – representation in ophthalmology remains a glaring issue. As noted in David Peprah’s recent article, only 6.3 percent of resident ophthalmologists identify as underrepresented in medicine, making ophthalmology the least diverse specialty amongst all residency specialties (3). Alongside this statistic, you may be disappointed to discover that the UCLA ophthalmology program co-founded by Bath lost accreditation at the turn of the century…

Although Bath’s legacy is now solidified in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, it is clear that much more work is needed to create an inclusive and representative ophthalmic workforce. Going back to Peprah’s fantastic opinion article, “Representation is more than just who sits at the top and who is left at the bottom. Representation covers all levels and ultimately shapes the priorities of our profession reflected in patient care, research, and community engagement.”

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  1. National Institutes of Health, “Dr. Patricia E. Bath” (2015). Available at:
  2. National Women’s Hall of Fame (2023). Available at:
  3. The Ophthalmologist, “One in Ten Million” (2023). Available at:
About the Author
Sarah Healey

Communicating stories in a way that is accessible to all was one of the focal points of my Creative Writing degree. Although writing magical realism is a fun endeavor (and one I still dabble in), getting to the heart of human stories has always been the driving motivator behind my writing. At Texere, I am able to connect with the people behind scientific breakthroughs and share their stories in a way that is impactful and engaging.

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