The Medical Spotlight


Dr. Patricia E. Bath

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“Patricia E. Bath, an ophthalmologist and laser scientist, is an innovative research scientist and advocate for blindness prevention, treatment, and cure. Her accomplishments include the invention of a new device and technique for cataract surgery known as laserphaco, the creation of a new discipline known as “community ophthalmology,” and appointment as the first woman chair of ophthalmology in the United States, at Drew-UCLA in 1983.

Patricia Bath’s dedication to a life in medicine began in childhood, when she was first heard about Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s service to lepers in the Congo. After excelling in her studies in high school and university and earning awards for scientific research as early as age sixteen, Dr. Bath embarked on a career in medicine. She received her medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., interned at Harlem Hospital from 1968 to 1969, and completed a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University from 1969 to 1970. Following her internship, Dr. Bath completed her training at New York University between 1970 and 1973, where she was the first African American resident in ophthalmology. Bath married and had a daughter Eraka, born 1972. While motherhood became her priority, she also managed to complete a fellowship in corneal transplantation and keratoprosthesis (replacing the human cornea with an artificial one).

As a young intern shuttling between Harlem Hospital and Columbia University, Bath was quick to observe that at the eye clinic in Harlem half the patients were blind or visually impaired. At the eye clinic at Columbia, by contrast, there were very few obviously blind patients. This observation led her to conduct a retrospective epidemiological study, which documented that blindness among blacks was double that among whites. She reached the conclusion that the high prevalence of blindness among blacks was due to lack of access of ophthalmic care. As a result, she proposed a new discipline, known as community ophthalmology, which is now operative worldwide. Community ophthalmology combines aspects of public health, community medicine, and clinical ophthalmology to offer primary care to underserved populations. Volunteers trained as eye workers visit senior centers and daycare programs to test vision and screen for cataracts, glaucoma, and other threatening eye conditions. This outreach has saved the sight of thousands whose problems would otherwise have gone undiagnosed and untreated. By identifying children who need eyeglasses, the volunteers give these children a better chance for success in school.

Bath was also instrumental in bringing ophthalmic surgical services to Harlem Hospital’s Eye Clinic, which did not perform eye surgery in 1968. She persuaded her professors at Columbia to operate on blind patients for free, and she volunteered as an assistant surgeon. The first major eye operation at Harlem Hospital was performed in 1970 as a result of her efforts.

In 1974 Bath joined the faculty of UCLA and Charles R. Drew University as an assistant professor of surgery (Drew) and ophthalmology (UCLA). The following year she became the first woman faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. As she notes, when she became the first woman faculty in the department, she was offered an office “in the basement next to the lab animals.” She refused the spot. “I didn’t say it was racist or sexist. I said it was inappropriate and succeeded in getting acceptable office space. I decided I was just going to do my work.” By 1983 she was chair of the ophthalmology residency training program at Drew-UCLA, the first woman in the USA to hold such a position.

Despite university policies extolling equality and condemning discrimination, Professor Bath experienced numerous instances of sexism and racism throughout her tenure at both UCLA and Drew. Determined that her research not be obstructed by the “glass ceilings,” she took her research abroad to Europe. Free at last from the toxic constraints of sexism and racism her research was accepted on its merits at the Laser Medical Center of Berlin, West Germany, the Rothschild Eye Institute of Paris, France, and the Loughborough Institute of Technology, England. At those institutions she achieved her “personal best” in research and laser science, the fruits of which are evidenced by her laser patents on eye surgery.

Bath’s work and interests, however, have always gone beyond the confines of a university. In 1977, she and three other colleagues founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, an organization whose mission is to protect, preserve, and restore the gift of sight. The AIPB is based on the principle that eyesight is a basic human right and that primary eye care must be made available to all people, everywhere, regardless of their economic status. Much of the work of the AIPB is done though ophthalmic assistants, who are trained in programs at major universities. The institute supports global initiatives to provide newborn infants with protective anti-infection eye drops, to ensure that children who are malnourished receive vitamin A supplements essential for vision, and to vaccinate children against diseases (such as measles) that can lead to blindness.

As director of AIPB, Bath has traveled widely. On these travels she has performed surgery, taught new medical techniques, donated equipment, lectured, met with colleagues, and witnessed the disparity in health services available in industrial and developing countries.

Dr. Bath is also a laser scientist and inventor. Her interest, experience, and research on cataracts lead to her invention of a new device and method to remove cataracts—the laserphaco probe. When she first conceived of the device in 1981, her idea was more advanced than the technology available at the time. It took her nearly five years to complete the research and testing needed to make it work and apply for a patent. Today the device is use worldwide. With the keratoprosthesis device, Dr. Bath was able to recover the sight of several individuals who had been blind for over 30 years.

In 1993, Bath retired from UCLA Medical Center and was appointed to the honorary medical staff. Since then, she has been an advocate of telemedicine, the use of electronic communication to provide medical services to remote areas where health care is limited. She has held positions in telemedicine at Howard University and St. George’s University in Grenada.

Dr. Bath’s greatest passion, however, continues to be fighting blindness. Her “personal best moment” occurred on a humanitarian mission to North Africa, when she restored the sight of a woman who had been blind for thirty years by implanting a keratoprosthesis. “The ability to restore sight is the ultimate reward,” she says.”



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“ATLANTA (AP) — The new U.S. Surgeon General on Thursday called for stepped-up efforts in increasing the number of minority physicians.

In what was one of her first speeches to a large crowd since she was sworn in Nov. 3, Dr. Regina Benjamin noted that the proportion of U.S. physicians who are minorities is only 6% — the same proportion as a century ago.

“There’s something wrong with that,” said Benjamin, speaking at a conference on health disparities at a hotel in downtown Atlanta.

The numbers come from a 2004 estimate of the percentage of U.S. physicians that are black or Hispanic. Blacks and Hispanics account for roughly 28% of the U.S. population, according to 2008 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

In a 27-minute speech, Benjamin told health leaders in the audience to encourage young minorities to pursue careers in medicine or other ambitions.

Benjamin, 53, is widely respected for being the founder and savior of a rural clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., that was wiped out three times by fire and hurricanes. She also was the first black woman to head a state medical society.

She is a native of Daphne, Ala., but has strong ties to Georgia. She attended Atlanta’s Morehouse School of Medicine and completed her residency in family medicine at the Medical Center of Central Georgia. She is a member of Morehouse’s Board of Trustees, and counts Dr. David Satcher— a Morehouse administrator and former surgeon general — as a mentor.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.




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March 27, 2009

Williamsburg, VA – American Medical Association (AMA) President Nancy H. Nielsen, MD, PhD, will be honored tomorrow night, March 28, with the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) Elizabeth Blackwell Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to the cause of women in the field of medicine.

“In her role as AMA president, Dr. Nielsen is leading the charge for meaningful health-care reform to benefit patients and physicians, and her work to raise awareness of the uninsured has been inspiring,” said Nancy Church, M.D., chair of AMWA Awards and Nominations Committee. “Dr. Nielsen is a trailblazer and is a true role model for women who aspire to have a career in medicine and leadership.”

Dr. Nielsen is a recognized expert on health care quality, and is actively involved in ongoing efforts by the physician community and health-care stakeholders to promote a system focused on high quality patient care. In addition to serving as AMA president, she is currently senior associate dean for medical education at the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo. Dr. Nielsen served as speaker of the AMA House of Delegates from 2003 to 2007 and vice-speaker for the three preceding years.

“I am truly honored to be granted this prestigious award from my peers at AMWA,” said Dr. Nielsen. “Being viewed by others as a role model is an honor and a responsibility which I take very seriously. I encourage all of my colleagues in medicine to join in our work to improve the health care system in our country and to mentor the next generation of physicians.”

The Elizabeth Blackwell Award was created as a lasting tribute to the first woman awarded a Doctor of Medicine degree from an American medical school. Upon graduation, Dr. Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Later, she helped found the National Health Society, was the first woman to be placed on the British Medical Register, and taught at England’s first college of medicine for women.



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By Cate Lineberry
Alexander T. Augusta
Oblate Sisters of Providence Archives, BaltimoreAlexander T. Augusta

On Jan. 7, 1863, just six days after the Emancipation Proclamation authorized African-American men to serve in the Union Army and Navy, Dr. Alexander T. Augusta, a freeman born in Norfolk, Va., wrote to President Lincoln requesting to serve as a surgeon “to some of the coloured regiments, or as physician to some of the depots of ‘freedmen.’” The 37-year-old Augusta had attended Trinity Medical College in Toronto; as he explained in his letter, “I was compelled to leave my native country, and come to this on account of prejudices against colour, for the purpose of obtaining knowledge of my profession; and having accomplished that object … I am now prepared to practice it, and would like to be in a position where I can be of use to my race.”

Lincoln sent the letter to the Army Medical Board, which initially ruled against allowing Augusta to serve. Refusing to give up, Augusta traveled to Washington to personally appeal his case, and he finally persuaded the board to overturn its decision. In April 1863, Augusta became the first African-American commissioned as a medical officer in the Union Army and was awarded the rank of major. He was one of only 13 African-Americans to serve as surgeons during the war, out of a total of 12,000.

Augusta was assigned as the surgeon in charge of the Contraband Hospital in Washington. The hospital, a collection of mostly tents and barracks, had been established to provide medical treatment to thousands of former slaves, known as “contraband,” who had fled to the capital after Lincoln ended slavery in the District of Columbia in April 1862. By the time of Augusta’s selection a year later, the hospital was also treating African-American soldiers.

Shortly after his appointment, Augusta was viciously attacked on a train in Baltimore, while in uniform, by a group of white men. He later responded to the attack in a weekly African-American newspaper, writing, “My position as an officer of the United States, entitles me to wear the insignia of my office, and if I am either afraid or ashamed to wear them, anywhere, I am not fit to hold my commission.”

After six months with the Contraband Hospital, Augusta left to become a regimental surgeon for the Seventh Infantry of United States Colored Troops in Maryland. (He was soon transferred to an African-American recruiting station after several white surgeons objected to his serving as their superior officer.) With Augusta’s decision to leave the hospital, William P. Powell Jr., the son of an African-American father and American Indian mother, who had received his medical training in England, became the surgeon in charge.

In all, 7 of the 13 black surgeons worked at the Contraband Hospital. Among these men were Augusta’s protégé, Anderson R. Abbott, a Canadian whose parents had emigrated from Alabama to Toronto, who joined the Union as a contract surgeon in 1863, as well as the abolitionist Charles B. Purvis, who first served at the hospital as a nurse before graduating from Wooster Medical College in Cleveland in 1865.

Anderson R. Abbott, left, and Charles B. Purvis
Toronto Public Library (left); National Library of MedicineAnderson R. Abbott, left, and Charles B. Purvis

John V. Degrasse, who had studied at Maine Medical College and who, like Augusta, was a commissioned officer, was the only African-American surgeon to serve in the field with his regiment. The other five surgeons who did not work at Contraband Hospital were assigned to various military hospitals and recruiting stations.

In addition to these remarkable men, who overcame almost insurmountable obstacles to care for wounded soldiers, countless other African-American men and women, with no formal training, worked as nurses in black-only and white-only hospitals and on battlefields. Some of them had been born free; others were former slaves. Charles Purvis’s cousin Charlotte Forten, born free in Philadelphia in 1837, had traveled south to St. Helena Island, S. C., in 1862 to help teach former slaves to read and write. When soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry in South Carolina were defeated at Fort Wagner during brutal hand-to-hand combat in July 1863, she volunteered as a nurse to care for them.

The Red Rover, a captured Confederate paddle steamer that was converted into a naval hospital.
United States Naval History and Heritage CommandThe Red Rover, a captured Confederate paddle steamer that was converted into a naval hospital.

Ann Stokes, a former slave, was the first African-American woman to serve on a United States military vessel when she began her work as a nurse in 1863 under the Sisters of the Holy Cross. She worked aboard the Red Rover, a former Confederate paddle steamer that had been converted into a naval hospital. Stokes was paid for her work and eventually became the only black woman awarded a pension from the Navy for her service during the Civil War.

Susie King Taylor
East Carolina University Special CollectionsSusie King Taylor

Another former slave, Susie King Taylor, who had been taught to read and write at secret schools while a child living with her grandmother in Savannah, Georgia, spent more than three years working for the Union’s First South Carolina Colored Volunteers while her husband served as a sergeant in the regiment. Officially a laundress, she tended to the wounded while teaching others to read and write. She was never paid for her work.

In 1902, more than three decades after the war, Taylor published “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C. Volunteers” — the only published memoir by an African-American nurse during the Civil War. In the opening she explains her reasons for writing the book:

So I now present these reminiscences to you, hoping they may prove of some interest, and show how much service and good we can do to each other, and what sacrifices we can make for our liberty and rights, and that there were ‘loyal women,’ as well as men, in those days, who did not fear shell or shot, who cared for the sick and dying; women who camped and fared as the boys did, and who are still caring for the comrades in their declining years. So, with the hope that the following pages will accomplish some good and instruction for its readers, I shall proceed with my narrative.

The Union wasn’t alone in depending on African-American nurses. Some Confederate hospitals relied on black nurses to help care for the overwhelming number of sick and wounded. The largest Confederate hospital, Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, Va., used hundreds of African-Americans, most of them male slaves, to provide care to thousands of patients. The surgeon in charge of the hospital in 1862, James Brown McCaw, wrote, “It will be entirely impossible to continue the hospital without them.” After Richmond was captured in April 1865, the Union turned it into a hospital to treat black soldiers.

William P. Powell Jr.
National Archives and Records Administration/National Library of MedicineWilliam P. Powell Jr.

When the war ended, the contributions of many of these African-Americans were largely forgotten. In fact, when William P. Powell Jr., who served as the surgeon in charge of the Contraband Hospital after Augusta’s departure, retired from medicine in 1891 because of poor health and a disability, the government denied his request for a pension, citing his role as a contract surgeon rather than a commissioned officer and determining that he did not have enough proof of his disability. Powell spent the next 24 years fighting the decision, and even wrote letters to Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt asking for their assistance, until his death in 1915 at the age of 81. He never received his pension.