Cataract surgery has come on leaps and bounds in the last century. Since the ancient Indians and Romans first ‘couched’ a cataract with a sharp needle in the 5th Century BC, humans have been utilizing the latest technological advances to give people back their sight.
The Adoption of LASIK surgery was a huge step forward. The use of lasers to break down cataracted tissue for removal meant that cataract surgery no longer needed to be a painful and invasive process. It paved the way for multifocal intraocular lens technology.
We like to celebrate pioneering women on this site. No person fits the moniker of ‘pioneer’ more than Dr Patricia Bath. The late innovator was a key figure in the development of modern laser cataract surgery. She was the first African American woman to receive a patent for medical purposes – with her Laserphaco Probe being patented in 1988. She was an inventor, surgeon and celebrated humanitarian. This is a brief summary of her story.
Patricia was born in Harlem, New York in 1942. While she was still in high school, Bath attended the National Science Foundation scholarship program. While attending the program, she made the discovery that cancer was made up of cataracted cells, and developed an algorithm to effectively predict cancer growth in humans.
The assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 deeply affected the young Bath. She decided to dedicate her medical talents towards the betterment of underprivileged people across the world. Throughout her life, Bath’s constant innovation in medicine was often paired with parallel efforts to offer medical advances to underprivileged people.
While working at a hospital in Harlem, bath noticed disturbing disparities in eye health. Poor African Americans were far more likely to suffer from cataracted eye tissue that went untreated than wealthy white Americans. She saw that eye health was a social issue, as well as a medical one.
In order to address this inequality, Bath drew up plans for a new medical discipline: community ophthalmology. This discipline used social health practices to improve eye health equality. Street medics would call door to door, offering eye health check-ups and referrals to clinics.
The initiative was extremely successful, and spawned a worldwide movement. Community ophthalmology groups operate in some of the world’s poorest communities, helping to curb the many cases of preventable blindness in societies with poor access to medical provisions.
After pioneering community ophthalmology, Bath turned her attention to innovation in noninvasive cataract surgery.
She has five medical patents, all of which relate to the improvement of eye surgery. She developed practical methods of using pulsed ultrasound to break up cataracted tissue. She developed new laser apparatus for incising tissue. In 2003, she developed a method for combining laser and ultrasound surgical practices, which has largely been responsible for the techniques surgeons use today when removing cataracts.
Her community work and practical innovation has greatly improved the eye health of the world at large. A real hero, she will be remembered by the surgical community.