Eyesight as a Basic Human Right

Patricia Bath was born in Harlem. Her father was an immigrant from Trinidad. Her mother was a descendant of African slaves and Native Americans. Both parents were strong supporters of her education. Her achievements as a young woman included:

  • An NSF scholar while in high school.
  • A research project leading to a predictive model for cancer cell growth.
  • A fellowship award to do research in Yugoslavia.
  • Number of prizes and honors.

Dr. Bath returned to Harlem to practice. She observed that African Americans had higher rates of blindness than white patients. There were no ophthalmologists at the Harlem Hospital so she convinced physicians at Columbia University Hospital to treat patients at Harlem.

Dr. Bath developed the concept of community ophthalmology in an effort to prevent blindness. Her concept was applied worldwide to populations lacking proper eye care. She believed in the principle that “eyesight was a basic human right.”

Dr. Bath was also an innovator in eye care technology. She developed an advance in the use of lasers for cataract removal. Using her device, she was able to restore the eyesight of people who had been unable to see for decades. She was the first African American woman to receive a patent for a medical device. She was also one of the first two women to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (5 decades after the establishment of the NIHF).

She was a humanitarian through the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which she co-founded. She provided eye drops, vitamins, and vaccinations to those who did not have access. She also traveled the world to perform surgeries.

It seems incredible that the concept that eyesight was not considered a basic human right until Dr. Bath began her advocacy for the prevention of blindness and her restoration of blindness through her technological innovations. It was 1976 when Dr. Bath began her active advocacy work. While we don’t think of eyesight as a basic human right as being controversial, that principle is still in its infancy.

The expansion of how we think of basic human rights is often the result of pioneering heroes like Dr. Bath. Through their hands-on contributions, they have the legitimacy that leads to the acceptance of an expansion of how we think of basic rights.

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            “The evolution of the human rights movement clearly illustrates humanity’s ongoing struggle toward creating a better world.” – Robert Silverstein (Businessman)

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