Welcome to STEMinism Sunday! As a former woman in science, I have a deep and enduring interest in the experiences and representation of women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). This series will be an opportunity for me – and you – to get to know some of these intellectual badasses.
Imagine it’s the 1960s and you’re a black person in the USA. Congratulations – you’re twice as likely to be blind as a white person.
I hope that fact makes you as mad as it makes me! It made Dr. Patricia Bath mad, too, but, because she was a good scientist, it also made her curious. As she began researching reasons for this disparity, Bath discovered that the most common cause of blindness in white people at the time was old age; in contrast, the most common cause of blindness in black people was glaucoma – a disease that can be treated if it’s caught early. Many black Americans, however, didn’t know the early signs of glaucoma, purely because they didn’t have the same to access to medical education or affordable health care. As a result, they were suffering in ways their white neighbours weren’t.
Bath set out to change that, and invented an entirely new branch of medicine called community ophthalmology. Instead of waiting for patients to come to doctor’s offices for care, health care workers (both professionals and trained volunteers) met with patients in schools and seniors’ centers and other spaces in the community. They gave kids eye exams, identifying those who needed glasses to help them succeed in school. And they screened people for eye diseases, identifying and treating problems before they caused blindness.
Because of Bath’s work, thousands of people who might have gone blind still have their sight. Today, community ophthalmology is used to help people all over the world.
A founder of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, Bath continued her fight for sight until her death in 2019.