History’s Hidden Heroes: Dr. Patricia Bath

Dr. PAtricia BathTime for my favorite blog feature – History’s Hidden Heroes, where we talk about scientists who may not get the recognition they deserve, especially outside of their field.  This month we are talking about Dr. Patricia Bath.  If you’ve had cataracts, and you’ve had those cataracts treated, you can think Dr. Bath for saving your eyesight. Patricia Bath, an opthamologist, was the first African-American female doctor to patent a medical invention.  Her patent was for the Cataract Laserphaco Probe.  This terrifyingly named device was a method to remove cataracts from people’s eyes.  Dr. Bath owns four patents and also developed new strategies of delivering eye care to underserved populations.

Dr. Bath was born in Harlem in 1942.  Her parents encouraged her academic career.  While serving as a fellow at Columbia University, she began a life-long campaign to bring eye care to poor patients and to people of color who were often not receiving the same care as whites.

It seemed that at the Eye Clinic at Harlem Hospital, half the patients were blind or visually impaired. In contrast, at the Eye Clinic at Columbia . . . there were very few obviously blind patients. That observation fueled [a] passion . . . to conduct a retrospective epidemiological study . . . which documented that . . . blindness among blacks was double that [among] whites. I reached the conclusion that the cause for the high prevalence among blacks was due to lack of access to ophthalmic care. This conclusion led me to propose a new discipline, known as Community Ophthalmology, which is now operative worldwide.

The Laserphaco method and technology that Dr. Bath developed has restored sight to people who had been missing it for decades.You can find more about Dr. Bath, including more amazing quotes, at inventionsmithsonian.org  Here’s the concluding quote from the Smithsonian webpage:

While her career has been marked by many “firsts” as a scientist, a woman, and an African-American, she looks forward to the day when a person’s work will speak for itself. “Hopefully, our society will come to that point. Sometimes I want to say to people, just look at my work. . . . I’ve had technological obstacles, scientific obstacles, and obstacles being a woman. Yes, I’m interested in equal opportunities, but my battles are in science.”

 

 

History’s Hidden Heroes: Margaret E. Knight

Maggie KnightWelcome to History’s Hidden Heroes, the feature where we look at scientists who are not well-known in the United States outside of their field.  We feature people of color, women, and LGBT scientists both historical and current.  Today we’re looking at the life and inventions of inventor, Maggie Knight, who lived from 1838 – 1914.  She was awarded The Decoration of the Royal Legion of Honor by Queen Victoria herself.

Maggie was raised by a single mother (her father died when Maggie was young).  Maggie left school at the age of twelve to work in a cotton mill.  Her first invention was a device that would automatically turn a machine off if something was caught in it.  A common cause of injury in the mills was getting caught in the machinery, and Maggie’s device was quickly put into use.

Maggie’s most famous invention was created in 1868, while she was working in a paper bag plant in Massachusetts.  Her invention was a device that would automatically glue and fold the bottom of a bag, so the bag could be stored perfectly flat and then unfolded.  Every time you use a paper bag at the store you are using a variation on Maggie’s invention.  It may not seem like a glamorous invention, but it’s one that’s had a huge impact on every day life.  And, in the 1800s, paper bags (the size you might put your lunch in) were a big industry, so her invention had an economic effect as well.

Charles Annan tried to copy and take credit for her invention, but Maggie took him to court.  His argument was that no woman could invent such a great thing.  She was able to prove that she was the inventor, and she won her patent.  Female inventors faced discrimination in and out of court.  The first known U.S. woman inventor, Sybilla Masters, invented a means of grinding corn in 1715, but she was forbidden by law to have a patent issued to her – it had to be issued to her husband.  Maggie is sometimes listed as the first U.S. woman to have a patent in her own name, but this is incorrect.  The first was Hannah Slater, who was awarded a patent in 1773 for developing cotton sewing thread.

While the paper bag folding machine is the invention that made Maggie Knight famous, it wasn’t her last.  She came up with over 100 different inventions and ended up with over 20 more patents.  You can see her patents at wikipedia.  Here’s a picture of the 1879 patent model of the paper bag machine – isn’t it beautiful?

paper bag folding machine

You can find out more about Maggie Knight at women-inventors.com.  PBS.org has a small but interesting feature about colonial female inventors.