Ophthalmologist Dr. Patricia Bath had long wanted to join the ranks of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison in the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame. But this May, nearly three years after her death, she will be inducted for achievements in eye surgery.

Bath invented the laserphaco probe — which revolutionized the use of lasers for cataract surgery. She is also recognized as the first Black female physician to receive a medical patent, according to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. 

Bath and Google engineer Marian Croak are the first two Black women to be inducted into the hall. 

Croak is celebrated for her work on voice-over internet protocol (VoIP) technologies, which convert speech into digital signals.

There will be a ceremony next spring for Bath and Croak, along with 27 other inventors who are part of the 2022 class of inductees. 

Bath died in 2019 after a brief illness and will be receiving a posthumous induction. 

Her daughter, Eraka Bath, spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about her mother’s work. Here is part of that conversation.

How do you think your mother would feel about being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame?

I think she would be absolutely overjoyed at this achievement.

It is an historic first in many ways and I think that this was one that she was really wanting to happen for herself. 

Why do you think it’s taken so long?

This is part of a larger narrative reflecting both racism and gender bias and particularly in STEM fields. 

It’s really not that there haven’t been people doing really important, innovative, groundbreaking, artistic work. [But] part of it is … inclusivity of recognition, right? Who are the people who decide who gets in? 

Those things are sort of structural forces that decide what history gets to be told.

Engineer Marian Croak will inducted into the U.S. National Inventor’s Hall of Fame, for her developing VoIP, or voice over internet protocol, technology. Croak is a vice-president at Google and has more than 200 U.S. patents. (U.S. National Inventor’s Hall of Fame)

Can you tell us about the invention that your mother discovered and had patented?

She really thought that lasers could help make [cataract] surgery faster, more accurate [and] less invasive by resulting in smaller incision size. 

Like many African Americans, she was unable to secure funding at her home institutions, so [she] travelled to Europe and discovered the appropriate frequency of laser, the amount of time, heat, et cetera, at a lab in Germany. 

She had been nominated over 11 times in almost three decades…. Ideally, she would have lived to experience that.– Eraka Bath, daughter of Dr. Patricia Bath

Can you give us a sense of what kind of a difference it made for people getting these procedures and how widely used the laserphaco is?

The laserphaco itself was not commercialized, but the method and the technology was. 

The fact that the incision was so small, that made it sutureless. There’s less scarring [and] more rapid heal time — more rapid process. So it was pretty revolutionary. 

Previously … people couldn’t figure out the right way to use lasers and not destroy the lens. So she figured out the physical properties of the laser and how to optimize them for this state-of-the-art procedure.

When your mom was an intern, she spent time both at Harlem Hospital and Columbia University. And she came to realize something that was quite significant and that she set out to change. Can you tell us what that was?

During her time in Harlem Hospital, there was segregated eye care in the sense that they were not having the same level of services and access as patients in the eye clinics at Columbia — to the extent that there were no eye surgeries actually performed at Harlem Hospital. So she convinced some of her Columbia professors to begin eye surgery in the eye clinic at Harlem Hospital and then documented that historic event.

She was always thinking about eye care as needing to be a primary care. And her other, I think, innovation was really recognizing that Blacks had a preventable blindness … but also double the rates of glaucoma as white patients. 

And so she ended up writing about this and was one of the first to document this. And then proposed a new discipline, which she had coined “community ophthalmology,” to really think about how to address preventable blindness by placing eye care as part of primary care.

In cataract surgery, the clouded lens is removed and replaced with an artificial lens to restore clearer vision. (CBC)

Was she recognized in her lifetime? Did she get the recognition she clearly deserved when she was alive?

I’d say yes and no.

It’s unfortunate that this is a posthumous induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, because she had been nominated over 11 times in almost three decades…. Ideally, she would have lived to experience that. 

She had spoken publicly about just the concerns around being cited appropriately in the literature, her findings being not recognized. And that’s why even to this day, there’s the hashtag #CiteBlackWomen. 

She often reflected on her own on Nettie Stevens’ moments, where things that she had written about were not cited appropriately. And so those were some of the intersectional battles … related to race and gender bias that she faced. 

But at the same time, she was definitely celebrated…. She lived to see children’s books written about her. She participated in so many different … honouring type of activities and received numerous awards and accolades during her lifetime as well. 

There was this sort of duality to having this experience of being gaslit, where you know that you’ve invented something or you know that you were the first person to write or document that and then people are not citing your work, but then also having the benefit of, you know, she felt that she was a hero of the children and of the people. And that’s ultimately what mattered most to her.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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