I recently stumbled upon a book by novelist-historian Kevin Baker titled America the Ingenious: How a Nation of Dreamers, Immigrants, and Tinkerers Changed the World. Baker tells the stories of a stunning variety of American visionaries without whose genius our lives would be much the poorer.
Consider what the skylines of the world’s cities would look like were it not for Elisha Graves Otis’s invention of the Safety Elevator. “Safety” is the operative word. Passenger and freight elevators had existed long before his, but the perception was that they were dangerous. However, in 1854 a dramatic demonstration of the safety of his elevator, at P. T. Barnum’s world’s fair in New York, secured Otis’s place in history. At the end of an astonishing free-fall performance Mr. Otis proclaimed, “All safe, ladies and gentleman, all safe!” And with that, orders began to pour in. Otis's custom-built elevators were installed in stores and other multi-story buildings in Manhattan and beyond, and it wasn’t long before Otis became a household name around the world.
Incredible inventions and achievements from the massive to the minuscule have enhanced our lives, from the building of large-scale projects – the Erie Canal, the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge – to a plethora of smaller-scale developments such as dry cleaning, air conditioning, the dishwasher and even the lowly safety pin, which have enhanced our lives in ways that we have long taken for granted.
As I began to read America the Ingenious, I wondered if any African Americans would be included. So I was heartened to read, not too far along in the book, the following advisory: “You will find among our inventors a relatively small proportion of women and people of color. This is because both were prevented, for many years, from filing patents, by law, and then by social custom and persecution.”
Because of the enormous success of the film “Hidden Figures” I thought I would bring to your attention a somewhat hidden figure who is still very much with us. Patricia Era Bath, born in 1942, is a pioneer in the field of ophthalmology. Her name was unknown to me until I read about her in America the Ingenious although she is probably behind the success of the cataract surgeries many of you have had performed and that will be on my schedule in the not too distant future.
“Patricia Era Bath grew up in an almost unimaginably different world from ours today and is a living embodiment of how far African Americans have managed to push past the barriers imposed by the old Jim Crow system. She would overcome them all and invent a revolutionary new procedure and device for removing cataracts with lasers.
“Her parents instilled in her the idea that she could do anything she put her mind to. When she was still a sixteen-year-old high school student, she took part in a summer cancer research project run by Yeshiva University and the Harlem Hospital Center. While there she developed a mathematical equation to predict the rate of growth of a cancer – work that so impressed one of the doctors running the program that he included it in a paper he presented at a conference in Washington, D.C.
“She achieved a long list of prestigious firsts, all while completing a fellowship in corneal transplantation and keraprosthesis at Columbia University. But her most resounding contribution was her invention of the Laserphaco Probe for cataract removal.
“At the start of the 1980s, cataracts could still be extracted only through a difficult and extended surgical procedure that basically involved grinding them down – if they could be removed at all. Dr. Bath conceived of doing the job faster, more easily, and more safely with lasers.
“Performing the most basic research proved difficult because most laser technology in the United States was reserved for military research. Dr. Bath went to Berlin in 1981 to find an available laser.
“After five years of work she developed the Laserphaco, a sort of ‘three-in-one’ instrument consisting of ‘an optical laser fiber, surrounded by irrigation and aspiration tubes’. The laser probe is inserted into a one-millimeter incision in the eye, where it vaporizes – ‘phacoblates’ – the cataract and the lens matter, almost painlessly, and in just a few minutes. What remains of the cataract lens is then washed and sucked out of the eye by the irrigation and aspiration tubes, leaving it clean to insert a new lens.
“By 1988, Dr. Bath had earned three patents on the device, making her the first African American doctor to earn medical patents. Today her invention is used around the world.“
I would be surprised if anyone reading this has heard of Dr. Patricia Era Bath. Except for athletes and politicians, the media tends to overlook the many individuals such as Dr. Bath who have made significant contributions in a variety of fields.
It is a miracle, considering the enormous forces needed to get a motion picure made by a major studio, that the film “Hidden Figures” has become a reality. And despite the naysayers who dismiss the story as fiction, the film is enjoying extraordinary success in this age of razzle-dazzle special effects, animated fluff, and “50 Shades” dreck. It has picked up Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Perhaps you have not needed cataract surgery. But if and when you do it is possible that a figure not quite so hidden, Dr. Patricia Era Bath, will have been responsible for the fact that the removal of your cataracts, rather than being a painful ordeal, was a safe, speedy and essentially painless procedure.