Biography of Bessie Blount, American Inventor

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Bessie Blount (November 24, 1914–December 30, 2009) was an American physical therapist, forensic scientist, and inventor. While working with injured soldiers after World War II, she developed a device that allowed amputees to feed themselves; it delivered one mouthful of food at a time to patients whenever they bit down on a tube. Griffin later invented a receptacle that was a simpler and smaller version of the same, designed to be worn around a patient's neck.

Fast Facts: Bessie Blount

  • Known For: While working as a physical therapist, Blount invented assistive devices for amputees; she later made contributions to the field of forensic science.
  • Also Known As: Bessie Blount Griffin
  • Born: November 24, 1914 in Hickory, Virginia
  • Died: December 30, 2009 in Newfield, New Jersey
  • Education: Panzer College of Physical Education and Hygiene (now Montclair State University)
  • Awards and Honors: Virginia Women in History Honoree

Early Life

Bessie Blount was born in Hickory, Virginia, on November 24, 1914. She received her primary education at Diggs Chapel Elementary School, an institution that served African Americans. However, a lack of public resources forced her to end her education before she had completed middle school. Blount's family then moved from Virginia to New Jersey. There, Blount taught herself the material required to earn her GED. In Newark, she studied to be a nurse at Community Kennedy Memorial Hospital. She went on to study at the Panzer College of Physical Education (now Montclair State University) and became a certified physical therapist.

Physical Therapy

After finishing her training, Blount began working as a physical therapist at the Bronx Hospital in New York. Many of her patients were soldiers who had been wounded during World War II. Their injuries, in some cases, prevented them from performing basic tasks, and Blount's job was to help them learn new ways to do these things using their feet or their teeth. Such work was not only physical rehabilitation; its goal was also to help veterans regain their independence and sense of control.

Inventions

Blount's patients faced numerous challenges, and one of the biggest was finding and developing new ways to eat on their own. For many amputees, this was especially difficult. To help them, Blount invented a device that delivered one bite of food at a time through a tube. Each bite was released when the patient bit down on the tube. This invention allowed amputees and other injured patients to eat without assistance from a nurse. Despite its usefulness, Blount was unable to successfully market her invention, and she found no support from the United States Veteran's Administration. She later donated the patent rights to her self-feeding device to the French government. The French put the device to good use, making life much easier for many war veterans. Later, when asked why she gave away the device for free, Blount said she wasn't interested in money; she simply wanted to prove that black women were capable of more than "[nursing] babies and [cleaning] toilets."

Blount continued to search for new ways to improve the lives of her patients. Her next invention was a "portable receptacle support," which hung around the neck and allowed patients to hold objects near their face. The device was designed to hold a cup or a bowl, from which patients could sip using a straw. In 1951, Blount officially received a patent for her self-feeding device; it was filed under her married name, Bessie Blount Griffin. In 1953, she became the first woman and the first African American to appear on the television show "The Big Idea," where she exhibited some of her inventions.

While working as a physical therapist for Theodore Miller Edison, the son of inventor Thomas Edison, Blount developed a design for a disposable emesis basin (the receptacle used to collect bodily fluids and waste in hospitals). Blount used a combination of newspaper, flour, and water to produce a material similar to papier-mache. With this, she made her first disposable emesis basins, which would have saved hospital workers from having to clean and sanitize the stainless steel basins used at the time. Once again, Blount presented her invention to the Veteran's Administration, but the group had no interest in her design. Blount patented the invention and sold the rights to a medical supplies company in Belgium instead. Her disposable emesis basin is still used in Belgian hospitals today.

Forensic Science

Blount eventually retired from physical therapy. In 1969, she began working as a forensic scientist, assisting law enforcement officers in New Jersey and Virginia. Her main role was to translate the academic findings of forensic science research into practical guidelines and tools for officers on the ground. Over the course of her career, she became interested in the relationship between handwriting and human health; Blount had observed that writing—a fine-motor skill—could be affected by different forms of disease, including dementia and Alzheimer's. Her inquiries into this area led her to publish a groundbreaking paper on "medical graphology."

Soon Blount was in high demand for her expertise in this emerging field. During the 1970s, she assisted police departments across New Jersey and Virginia, and she even served for a time as a chief examiner. In 1977, she was invited to London to assist British police with handwriting analysis. Blount became the first African American woman to work for Scotland Yard.

Death

Blount died in Newfield, New Jersey, on December 30, 2009. She was 95 years old.

Legacy

Blount made major contributions in both the medical and forensic science fields. She is best remembered for the assistive devices she invented as a physical therapist and for her innovative work in graphology.

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