Patricia discovered the social impact of medicine when she was a young girl, and knew that she had to become a doctor. She grew up in Harlem, in New York City, and her parents encouraged her passion for the sciences. Patricia excelled in high school and college and even started receiving awards for her scientific research at age 16. She attended Hunter College and then left NYC to pursue her medical degree at Howard University, in Washington DC. When she returned to New York, she held an internship at Harlem Hospital and following that, a fellowship in ophthalmology - the treatment of eye disorders - at Columbia University.
Patricia began to notice very different patterns at these two institutions. At Harlem Hospital, almost all the patients were blind or visually impaired, whereas at Columbia, there were almost no blind patients. She became curious, conducted research, and discovered that blindness was twice as common in the black community! Patricia hypothesized that this disparity was due to lack of ophthalmic care, and made it her life mission to improve access to eye disorder care for low income communities. Harlem Hospital had an eye clinic, but they didn’t have any doctors who could perform surgeries. Patricia convinced her professors at Columbia to perform surgeries for free, and she assisted at these surgeries, opening the door for so many people who needed eye care but couldn’t afford it.
Patricia moved to California to become a professor at UCLA. When she arrived, she was the first female faculty member in her department, and had to fight against unfair treatment in order to pursue her research. But Patricia advocated for herself at all times. She founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AIPB) in 1977, to help underserved populations around the world protect and restore eyesight. In 1981, she invented a device that could cure cataracts, the laserphaco probe. It took Patricia five years to develop the technologies and patent her device, and in 1986, she became the first black female doctor to hold a patent. Her invention, the laserphaco probe, is still used around the world to cure cataracts, 40 years later.
When Patricia retired from being a professor, in 1993, she continued her volunteer and nonprofit work. She continued supporting AIPB, advocated for math and science education for girls, and championed telehealth as a way for underserved communities to access medical care. The social impact of Patricia’s medical career cannot be quantified. She described “the ultimate reward” as restoring someone’s sight after 30 years of blindness due to cataracts. Patricia passed away in 2019, at the age of 76. Patricia’s legacy lives on, and in 2022, she was honored as one of the first two black women to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.