Patricia Bath admits she was “not seeking to be the first” person to invent the laser probe that revolutionized cataract surgery. “I was only attempting to do my thing,” she tells TIME in their new Firsts multimedia project, which celebrates female trailblazers and groundbreakers.
Doing her thing—which meant becoming a pioneering ophthalmologist and seeking ways to treat and prevent blindness—wasn’t always easy. When Bath became the first woman to join the faculty at UCLA School of Medicine’s Jules Stein Eye Institute in 1974, male doctors in her department were so uncomfortable with a woman in their office space, they sat her near female secretaries.
“When I was offered an office not equivalent to that of my male colleagues, I could’ve started marching,” says Bath. “But I felt it was more important to focus on the prize.”
The prize Bath had her sights set on? The innovative laser probe she invented that made cataract surgery, which helps bring back the vision of approximately 2 million Americans every year, more efficient and less invasive. Cataracts are a (usually age-related) clouding of the lens of the eye, impeding vision and possibly resulting in blindness.
Bath's device, which she named the laserphaco probe, has ultimately helped restore vision in people who had been blind or vision impaired for decades in some cases. Yet when she first brought her invention to her lab’s director in the 1980s, he told her that it was “impossible” she’d come up with it herself.
“There was not acceptance,” recalls Bath. “And in some instances there was anger that petit moi, little me, had indeed shattered the glass ceiling, had a scientific breakthrough, and he wouldn’t look me in the face.”
Though Bath chuckles as she recounts the bias she came up against, it’s clear she has learned the hard way that discrimination is no joke.
“The narrative of surprise [around women accomplishing great things] has to change,” she says. “I realize that when I achieve these things, it helps what other women and other people of color, black women, can do. But keep in mind, I never had any doubts.”
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