Black History Month: African Americans' Vital Role in the Development of Modern Eye Care

Posted: Feb 26, 2020

February is Black History Month, and African Americans have been instrumental in advancing eye care in a multitude of ways. From the first black eye doctor to the first black female eye surgeon, these inspirational people are worth celebrating. 

Dr. David McDonogh - The First and Only Slave to Earn a Medical Degree

The first known African American eye care specialist practiced way back in the 1800s after being freed from slavery. Dr. David McDonogh was only allowed his education if he agreed to emigrate to Liberia after graduation. Receiving an education was challenging, as he was not allowed to take classes in the same room as his white peers, as was common for people of color. 

With persistence, motivation, and help from a few allies, McDonogh was given the chance to study medicine, thereby avoiding the requirement to leave the United States.

McDonogh studied at College of Physicians and Surgeons, now known as Columbia University Medical School; however, the school refused to officially enroll him or award him a diploma. This didn’t stop his mentor, Dr. John Kearney Rodgers, from hiring McDonogh at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. There, he was welcomed by his colleagues and was accepted as a qualified eye doctor for many years. Later, Dr. McDonogh was active in the abolitionist movement with the likes of Frederick Douglass.

Dr. McDonogh was a successful eye care specialist, and the only known former slave to receive a professional medical education.

Dr. Patricia Bath - Strong Woman Ophthalmologist

In more recent history, Patricia Bath was the first African American to complete an ophthalmology residency. She completed her program in 1973 at New York University.

She attended Columbia University for her fellowship program, specializing in the cornea (clear front of the eye), and later co-founded a residency program in ophthalmology at Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital.

In 1988, Dr. Bath became the first black woman to receive a medical patent. Her device, called the Laserphaco Probe, improved laser cataract surgery. (Check out our cataract blog here.) This is just the first of five patents in her name.

Among her other achievements, Dr. Bath was part of the team which performed the first eye surgery at Harlem Hospital in 1969. She was the first female faculty in the Department of Ophthalmology at Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA (1975), and she helped create (and chaired) the Ophthalmology Residency Training program at UCLA-Drew (1983).

Like McDonogh, Bath was an equal rights activist. During the Martin Luther King Jr. era, she often led her students in providing care for those in need.

In 1993, Dr. Bath was honored as a "Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine.” 

These two remarkable doctors helped improve the world of optics and ophthalmology as we know it today. The number of black physicians and surgeons is on the rise, and specialists like Dr. McDonogh and Dr. Bath helped pave a road for professionals of color to practice medicine in the United States. 



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