The National Inventors Hall of Fame has been around for nearly five decades but hasn't included any Black women in its ranks — until now.
Engineer Marian Croak and the late ophthalmologist Patricia Bath will make history as part of the next cohort of inductees, the nonprofit announced this past week. They are the first Black female inventors to receive this honor, which has been bestowed on some 600 other innovators both living and dead.
A spokesperson told NPR over email that there are 48 female inductees and 30 Black inductees in the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF).
"Innovation drives the worldwide economy forward and improves our quality of life. This is especially apparent given what we have experienced over the past 18 months," Michael Oister, the NIHF's CEO, said in a statement. "It's why at the National Inventors Hall of Fame we are privileged to honor our country's most significant inventors, who are giving the next generation the inspiration to innovate, create, and solve current and future problems."
Croak and Bath are among the seven honorees announced this month and will join the 22 others announced last year as the hall of fame's Class of 2022. All 29 will be celebrated and inducted at back-to-back ceremonies in Alexandria, Va., and Washington, D.C., in early May.
Here's what you need to know about these trailblazers.
Bath was a pioneering ophthalmologist whose work reshaped cataract surgery
Bath, who died in 2019 at age 76, was no stranger to making history.
She is recognized as the first Black female physician to receive a medical patent, according to the NIHF, the first Black woman to complete a residency in ophthalmology at New York University and the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the U.S. (the King-Drew-UCLA Ophthalmology Residency Program), to name just a few of her accolades.
Bath invented laserphaco, a minimally invasive device and technique that performs all steps of cataract removal, from making the incision to destroying the lens to vacuuming out the fractured pieces.
According to Bath's National Inventors Hall of Fame biography, she came up with the idea in 1981, published her first paper in 1987 and received her first U.S. patent for the device in 1988. It was being used in Europe and Asia by 2000.
"Bath's method employed a faster technique and established the foundation for eye surgeons to use lasers to restore or improve vision for millions of patients suffering from cataracts worldwide," reads a news release.
Bath received five patents over the course of her career. She also advocated for using public health approaches to eradicate preventable blindness, especially among racial minorities.
When she was a young intern spending time at both Harlem Hospital and Columbia University, she noticed that half the patients at Harlem's eye clinic were blind or visually impaired, while at Columbia's eye clinic, very few were. She studied this and concluded that the high rate of blindness among Black people was because of a lack of access to ophthalmic care, her biography at the National Library of Medicine notes.
In 1976, she proposed the discipline of community ophthalmology, which combines public health, community medicine and clinical and day care programs to provide eye care to underserved populations.
She co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness as well as the Ophthalmic Assistant Training Program at UCLA, whose graduates have worked on blindness prevention.
"To know that my mother is part of the 2022 class of National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees is an unbelievable honor," her daughter, Dr. Eraka Bath, said in a statement, saying the hall of fame distinction is "an overdue recognition" of her mother's accomplishments.
Tech pioneer Marian Croak has helped make remote work possible
Croak, who currently leads Google's Research Center for Responsible AI and Human Centered Technology, has more than 200 patents to her name.
Her work on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) focuses on converting voice data into digital signals that can be transmitted over the internet rather than through phone lines, her biography explains, and it has advanced the capability of audio- and videoconferencing.
The technology is now essential for remote work and conferencing.
Before joining Google, Croak and her team created a text-to-donate system for charitable donations that raised $130,000 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and $43 million after Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake. She has also led a team bringing broadband to developing countries in Asia and Africa.
Croak works on racial justice efforts at Google and encourages women and girls to pursue engineering, the NIHF biography adds.
Croak said in a recent interview with Google that her interest in the field goes back to age 5 or 6, when she would follow engineers and plumbers around her house to learn how they fixed things.
Fast-forward a few decades to the late 1990s when Croak was working at AT&T and started working on VoIP. She said critics believed no one would ever use the "toy like" technology, which originally wasn't very reliable — but her team eventually made so much progress that AT&T began to use it for its core network, an accomplishment she found even more exciting because of all the doubts and criticism she had faced along the way.
Croak encourages aspiring inventors to be persistent and listen to feedback, noting how much that impacted her own career. She said she was humbled and grateful to be part of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, especially in the class that includes its first Black women.
"I find that it inspires people when they see someone who looks like themselves on some dimension, and I'm proud to offer that type of representation," she told Google's blog. "People also see that I'm just a normal person like themselves and I think that also inspires them to accomplish their goals. I want people to understand that it may be difficult but that they can overcome obstacles and that it will be so worth it."