November 24, 1914 - December 30, 2009
Physical Therapist, Inventor and Forensic Scientist
Bessie Virginia Blount led a remarkable life that began in Hickory, Virginia, where she was born on November 24, 1914. She would go on to make significant breakthroughs in assistive technologies and forensic science, becoming a role model for women and African-Americans for her pioneering work.
She was a physical therapist and an inventor of apparatus that was designed to help the amputees that suffered permanent injuries in World War II. Blount’s first invention was a feeding device and she designed it in 1951. She would go on to invent other devices designed to help those with severe injuries or physically impaired.
Young Blount moved from Virginia to New Jersey to attend Panzar College of Physical Education and later, Union Junior College. It was her goal to become a physical therapist. She completed her studies in Chicago.
She became a practicing physical therapist, and, after World War II ended, many soldiers returned from the frontlines as amputees. As part of her physical therapy work, Blount taught veterans who did not have use of their hands and feet new ways to perform basic tasks. One major challenge for people in this condition is eating. It was important to many of them to be able to feed themselves to gain a feeling of independence and self-esteem.
Blount came up with a device that that consisted of a tube that delivered individual bites of food to the patient at his or her own pace. All he or she needed to do was bite down on the tube for the next morsel to be delivered to the mouthpiece. An attached machine would deliver the next mouthful on cue. Later, while living in Newark, New Jersey, practicing physical therapy, and teaching at Bronx Hospital in New York, she also created a simpler device that employed a neck brace with built-in support for a food receptacle such as a bowl, cup or dish. For this, she received a patent under her married name, Bessie Griffin, in 1951.
Blount reportedly attempted to interest the American Veteran’s Association in these inventions, but she found it difficult to get much support, despite the devices’ potential benefit to thousands of people’s lives. She even appeared on a television show called “The Big Idea” where she demonstrated her ideas in 1953 (she was the first woman and the first African American to appear on the program). Instead, she found support in the French government, to whom she eventually donated rights to both her inventions. She was quoted as saying that she had proven "that a black woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind."
Meanwhile, Blount cultivated a reputation among the inventor community: Among her closest friends was Theodore M. Edison, son of Thomas Alva Edison, with whom she discussed many ideas and projects. She continued to innovate, creating among other things a disposable cardboard emesis basin. This she fashioned by molding and baking a mixture made of flour, water, and newspaper. Once again, the American Veteran’s Administration Hospital was disinterested; she sold the idea to Belgium, which still uses a variation of her design in its hospitals nationwide.
A second career was in store for Blount in 1969, when she began working in law enforcement, conducting forensic science research for police departments in New Jersey and Virginia. She moved up quickly, and in 1977 was sent to train and work at Scotland Yard in England. Again, she was the first African American woman to be honored with such an opportunity. Next, she is said to have applied for a job with the FBI, but was turned down. Thus she began operating her own business, using her forensic training to examine pre-civil war documents and so-called “slave” papers. She operated the business until the age of 83.
Bessie Blount is still alive and well. She is 96 years old a very knowledgeable person. In August 2008, she visited her place of birth and the place where she attended elementary school.