'The Narrative Of Surprise Has To Change:' Patricia Bath, Inventor Of Laserphaco Cataract Surgery, On Black Women Making History

People were surprised when a Black woman was named the inventor of laserphaco cataract surgery, but Patricia Bath always knew her worth.

Christina Coleman Sep, 08, 2017

She didn’t set out to be the first Black woman to invent or achieve a feat. But she did that and more.

In fact, Patricia Bath became the first person — not woman — to invent and demonstrate laserphaco cataract surgery in 1988. And she didn’t let the surprise from her colleagues that a Black woman could change the medical world forever dampen her achievement.

In fact, she never doubted herself at all.

“I went to a prominent institute in Orange County and explained to the director what I had achieved,” she wrote for TIME Firsts, a multimedia project on 46 trailblazing women who are changing the world. “He said, ‘That’s impossible. People have been trying to do that for years.’ He didn’t believe me. A month or so later, after my patent had been granted and I published the findings, he was shocked. He wouldn’t look me in the face.”

But even though Bath knew her worth and power before those around her began to see her brilliance, she is at times humbled and grounded by what she’s contributed to society.

“One rainy, cold, lonely night in the lab, we had a donor eye. The laser was finely tuned, the optical fiber was in position and … Eureka! I knew that I had made a scientific breakthrough in removing cataracts,” she wrote. “Sometimes even now when I’m told I was a ‘first,’ it comes as a surprise, because it’s only through history that you understand that kind of thing. I didn’t realize when I joined UCLA in 1974 that I was the first woman in the ophthalmology department. I simply wanted to be part of a great team at an incredible facility. I wasn’t seeking to be first. I was just doing my thing, and I wanted to serve humanity along the way—to give the gift of sight.”

We celebrate Bath for her contributions and her persistence to create a safe space for women in the medical field. Bath’s interview is part of TIME Firsts, a multimedia project featuring 46 groundbreaking women. Watch the rest of the videos at Time.com/Firsts. Buy the book at the TIME Shop.

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Some eye patients are feeling like big winners, because of the state of the art eye operation that has given sight back to people who are almost totally blind. I was not seeking to be the first, I was only attempting to do my thing. It's only when history looks back that you realize you were the first. [MUSIC] I was always a curious child. I was what they call Called a nerd.>> [LAUGH] [BLANK_AUDIO] When I joined the faculty in 1974, I was the first women, and the office spacer were usually based on academic rank. The other system presser was a guy. [LAUGH] And I think they felt uncomfortable putting us in the same office. Ridiculous. So, my initial office was with secretaries. [LAUGH] I'm a product of the sixties, and yes, when I was offered an office that was not equivalent to that of my male colleagues, I could have started a march, [LAUGH], but. I felt it was more important to focus on the prize. Friends and colleagues, it's a pleasure to present this preliminary report on XLMA cataract surgery. One rainy cold [MUSIC] Lonely night in the labs, working until 2, 3 am. Eureka, laser phaco came to the planet. I explained to the director what I had achieved and he said, you didn't do that, that's impossible. There was not acceptance. And in some instances there was anger, that petite moi, little me, had indeed shattered the glass ceiling, had a scientific breakthrough and He wouldn't look me in the face. [LAUGH] The narrative of surprise it has to change. I realized that when I achieve this things it helps [UNKNOWN] other women nd other people of color, black women can do. [MUSIC] But keep in mind, I never had any doubts. [LAUGH] [MUSIC]

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