Juneteenth: Celebrating Black Inventors
Lisa L. Mueller
Casimir Jones S.C.
Juneteenth, also known as also known as Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, and Black Independence Day, commemorates the end of slavery in 1865 in the United States and celebrates Black culture. Juneteenth was recognized as a federal holiday on June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law.
This year, to honor Juneteenth, I wanted to highlight the stories of two incredible Black American inventors.
Laser Eye Surgery Pioneer: Dr. Patricia Bath
Dr. Patricia Bath received a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry in 1964 from Hunter College, followed by a medical degree from Howard University in 1968. Bath was the first Black female physician to complete a residency in ophthalmology, the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the U.S., and the first black female physician to receive a patent. Over the course of her career, Bath was awarded five U.S. patents [U.S. Patent Nos. 4,744,360, 5,843,071, 5,919,186, 6,083,192 and 6,544,254]. It was U.S. Patent No. 4,744,360 that protects Bath’s invention, the Laserphaco Probe, a minimally invasive device and technique that performs all the steps of cataract removal, from making the incision, to destroying the lens, to vacuuming out fractured pieces. The Probe allowed eye surgeons to use lasers to restore or improve vision for millions of patients suffering from cataracts worldwide.
It was while she was a young medical intern that Bath observed that about half of the patients at Harlem Hospital’s eye clinic, who were predominantly Black, were blind or visually impaired, while at Columbia Hospital, very few exhibited such eye issues. Based on her observations, she concluded that the high rate of blindness among Blacks was the result of a lack of access to ophthalmic care. As a result, in 1976, she proposed the discipline of community ophthalmology, which combined public health, community medicine and clinical and day care programs to provide eye care to underrepresented populations. Additionally, she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness as well as the Ophthalmic Assistant Training Program at UCLA, whose graduates work on blindness prevention.
Bath has been recognized as a laser pioneer, and she has been recognized by the National Science Foundation, the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, the American Medical Women’s Association, the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the American Academy of Ophthalmology Museum of Vision & Ophthalmic Heritage, the Association of Black Women Physicians with its Lifetime Achievement Award for Ophthalmology Contributions, and by Alpha Kappa Alpha with its Presidential Award for Health and Medical Services. Bath passed away in 2019.
Voice Data and AI Champion: Dr. Marian Croak
Dr. Marian Croak received an undergraduate degree from Princeton University and went on to the University of Southern California where she earned her doctorate, which focused on statistical analysis and social psychology. Currently, Croak serves as Vice President of Engineering at Google where she leads Google’s Research Center for Responsible Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Human Centered Technology. She has more than 200 patents to her name, such as U.S. Patent No. 7,599,359, which centers on Voice over Internet Protocol (VolP), which is focused on converting voice data into digital signals that can be transmitted over the internet rather than through phone lines and advanced the capability of audio and videoconferencing. This technology was essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, for remote work and conferencing.
During her career, Croak and her team created a text-to-donate system for charitable organizations that first saw widespread use and raied $130,000 after Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans in 2005. Five years later, after a powerful earthquake devastated Haiti, the tech raised a whopping $43 million in donations.
Croak is included in the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) Collectible Cards series and was featured in the USPTO’s SUCCESS ACT (Study of Underrepresented Classes Chasing Engineering and Science Success) Report in 2018. Croak won the Edison Patent Awards in 2013 and 2014. In 2013, she was also inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.
Fittingly, both Bath and Croak were inducted into The National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2021.