NEW YORK—When we think about Black history, we probably think about the big names: people like Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. But Black history doesn’t exist exclusively in the political arena—Black history is everywhere, touching every part of our world and our lives, including the optical industry. Some of the most influential and intriguing names in optical history are also influential and intriguing names in Black history: people like Powell Johnson, Kenneth J. Dunkley and Dr. Patricia Bath.

Let’s start at the beginning. On November 2, 1880, Powell Johnson of Barton, Alabama received a patent for an Eye-Protector. The patent is available to read in full online here, complete with a fascinating illustration of Johnson’s invention and how it works. Johnson designed his Eye-Protectors “for use of furnace-men, peddlers, firemen, and others exposed to glare of strong light, as well as persons of weak sight,” according to the patent. The protector had two sets of frames with cloth disks inserted to protect the eyes from bright light, and were the first of their kind. Unfortunately, not a lot is known about Johnson’s personal life, or his road to inventing the Eye-Protector.

Part of Powell Johnson’s patent for Eye-Protectors from 1880.
Then, there’s Kenneth J. Dunkley—a person whose invention all of us have almost certainly used at one point or another in our lives. Dunkley, who was born in New York in 1939, is the inventor and patent holder of 3D viewing glasses. Face 2 Face Africa reports that Dunkley was the one to discover “that blocking two points in a person’s peripheral vision will cause an ordinary picture to appear three-dimensional.” His work led to continued developments in the field of 3D glasses—meaning those red and blue 3D glasses you used as a kid, and the big oversized black ones at the movie theater, are thanks to Dunkley. The inventor, who is 82 now, is president of Holospace Laboratories in Pennsylvania.

We can thank scientist Kenneth J. Dunkley for 3D movies. Image via pixabay.

Most famous of all, of course, is ophthalmologist Patricia Bath, MD, whose name you likely already know well. Born in 1942, Dr. Bath is most well known as the inventor of laser cataract surgery. But that one invention, as major as it is, isn’t Dr. Bath’s only milestone. According to Biography, Dr. Bath was also: the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology, the first female faculty member in the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute’s Department of Ophthalmology, the first U.S. woman to serve as chair of an ophthalmology residency training program and the first African American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention. Of course, she also co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness.

Dr. Bath’s biography page on Changing the Face of Medicine.

Dr. Bath’s life was remarkable: she graduated from high school in New York City in just two years, and then got her bachelor’s at Hunter College, followed by a medical degree from Howard University. In an interview with Changing the Face of Medicine, Dr. Bath said, “Sexism, racism, and relative poverty were the obstacles which I faced as a young girl growing up in Harlem. There were no women physicians I knew of and surgery was a male-dominated profession; no high schools existed in Harlem, a predominantly black community; additionally, blacks were excluded from numerous medical schools and medical societies; and, my family did not possess the funds to send me to medical school.

“Newspaper accounts of the humanitarian work of Dr. Albert Schweitzer (who treated lepers in Africa) and my personal relationship with my family physician, Dr. Cecil Marquez, inspired me with the ambition to become a physician. Both my parents shared my admiration for these two role models and encouraged me to pursue my ambition.” Dr. Bath passed away in 2019, leaving behind her an incredible legacy that changed the faces of both the optical and medical fields forever.

This list is, of course, nowhere near an exhaustive look at Black inventors in the optical field. As we carry on into these last few days of Black History Month, it’s the perfect opportunity to take a moment to reflect on how Black history and optical history intersect—and how both futures will, too.

Black members of the optical community continue to make strides and break boundaries everyday. Organization like Black Eyecare Perspective, which spearheaded the 13 Percent Promise, The Vision Council through it's Opening Your Eyes Scholarship Program and DEI Taskforce, and the National Optometric Association's HBCU Visioning the Future mentorship program also work to offer more opportunities and create more space for Black opticians, optometrists, ophthalmologists and students.