We didn’t become Ophthalmologists by mistake or chance. The journey to earn the privilege of caring for your sight was deliberate, difficult, and required more than a decade of study and endless ongoing education. After achieving a bachelor’s degree or higher, we each attended at least 3 years of undergraduate school, and an additional 4 years of medical school. After receiving every diploma we could earn, we endured a grueling internship and residency, followed by intense licensing exams.
We understand the passion each student has to have to drive them to this career, but this February, we decided to do some research about some of the brave trailblazers in the field who had to work infinitely harder for the right to do what we love.
While we respect the contributions made every day, we wanted to take a moment this Black History Month to pay tribute to the African American influence in the field of Ophthalmology and vision.
David K. McDonogh – From Slave to Visionary
When David K. McDonogh arrived at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, it was as a slave, and as test subject to his owner, John McDonogh. John had initiated a secret experiment to ultimately free his slaves, helping them to achieve an education and sending them as missionary leaders to the Republic of Liberia.
While legally and technically “free” in Northern parts of the United States, David continued to face oppression, isolation, and a fight for every aspect of his education and subsequent licensing. He eventually had to break ties with his former owner in his endeavor to achieve a higher education and attain his medical degree, refusing to emigrate to Liberia.
His fight was not in vain, and after years of intense studies, petitions to elected officials, and under intense scrutiny, David was embraced by his field and his colleagues, becoming not only the first African American eye specialist in the United States, but the first former slave to gain a professional medical education. In his honor, the McDonough(SIC) Memorial Hospital opened in New York City in 1898, five years after his death at the age of 72. The hospital was the first of its kind, admitting both patients and physicians indiscriminate of their race.
Dr. Patricia Davis – When Faced With Life or Death, Vision Care Became her Life
When Patricia Davis needed to be heard, her voice fell on deaf ears, and her life hung in the balance.
In the spring of 1980, Davis was studying for a physics exam when a nagging pain in her abdomen became increasingly intense, before becoming intolerable. Six hours into her ordeal, exhausted and terrified, she sat before a doctor who diagnosed her with Pelvic Inflammatory Disease and sent her on her way.
Davis knew this was not only an incorrect diagnosis, but a catch-all dismissal of people who weren’t being heard. 24 hours after her unbearable pain began, her ruptured appendix was removed. She had suffered pancreatitis, pneumonitis, and peritonitis. She understood how close she had come to death, and vowed to become a physician, to ensure that no voice went unheard.
She went on to become a pioneer in Neuro-Ophthalmology, and a leader in the field of Pediatric Ophthalmology.
Dr. Davis has dedicated her time and talents to filling the gaps in knowledge about African American history, and to preserving the legacy of those who fought to create a path to freedom. She credits studying for her thesis “Laying Claim: African-American Cultural Memory and Southern Identity” with uncovering hidden truths about those who set the trail she continues to blaze with her research and her dedication to providing a vision for all.
Her preservation efforts ensure that not only will every voice be heard, but that their message will be remembered.
Dr. Patricia Bath – Her Vision Brings Sight to the Blind
In 1974, Dr. Patricia Bath Co-Founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness after her discovery that the prevalence of blindness in the black community, which was twice as common as in white communities, was a direct result of the lack of ophthalmic care. The Institute’s mission is to protect, preserve, and restore the gift of sight.
She fought not only racial discrimination in her field, but gender stereotypes and poverty to break multiple glass ceilings and revolutionize the science of sight restoration.
In her quest to bring her vision to those in need, she accomplished a series of firsts:
First African American to complete a residency in the field of Ophthalmology
First female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA
First African American female doctor to hold a patent (for the Laserphaco Technique and Probe which she developed and invented to treat cataracts)
First woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the United States
Today she holds numerous positions in the community, and has restored sight to countless patients who faced a lifetime in the dark.
These intrepid doctors have changed the way generations of people see the world, and their achievements are celebrated by anyone their research and advancements have touched. ilumin is thankful for their fearless work and bold contributions!