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Bessie Blount Griffin
Born (1914-11-24)24 November 1914
Hickory, Virginia, US
Died 30 December 2009(2009-12-30) (aged 95)
Alma mater Panzer College, physical therapy; Community Kennedy Memorial Hospital, nursing
Known for Assistive devices
Scientific career
Fields Inventor, Physical Therapist and Nurse

Bessie Virginia Blount, also known as Bessie Blount Griffin, (November 24, 1914 – December 30, 2009) was a writer, nurse, physical therapist, inventor and forensic scientist.

Early life

Bessie Blount Griffin was born on November 24, 1914. A native of Virginia, Blount was born in the Hickory, Virginia community, in Princess Anne County (now known as the city of Chesapeake).

Education

Blount attended Diggs Chapel Elementary School in Hickory, Virginia, an educational facility built after the Civil War for the opportunity of educational advancement for African American children. In an interview with the Virginian, Griffin recalled that her school “didn’t have textbooks. [They] later got them from the white schools.” While attending Diggs Chapel, Blount's teacher reprimanded her for writing with her left hand by rapping her knuckles, a form of discipline used at the time to teach students proper writing etiquette. Blount took this moment to her advantage, as a challenge to be ambidextrous, among other remarkable skills. Even though her right hand was her primary hand to write with, she still maintained her skill to write with her left hand as well. Besides, she taught herself the skill to be able to write without the use of her hands by holding a pencil with her teeth and feet. This skill was especially useful in her career later on, as she understood how to teach others to operate without one or more limbs. After the sixth grade, all of the academic resources that were being offered to African American children in her location, had been depleted, forcing Blount to stop her education. The family then relocated north to New Jersey, where Blount remained self-taught and obtained her GED. She then attended Community Kennedy Memorial Hospital's nurse's program, in Newark, New Jersey. After obtaining her Nursing degree, she continued her education at Panzer College of Physical Education and Hygiene in East Orange, New Jersey and became a physical therapist.

In 2008, Bessie Griffin returned home to Hickory to memorialize the significance of her primary school, which had been burned to the ground in 1932. No records of the school system were found before 1913. She intended to build a museum and library on the grounds in memory of those who had studied there in the decades past. Unfortunately, her project was never completed as Griffin died the following year.

Physical therapist career

During her career as a physical therapist, after World War II, many soldiers returned as amputees after being wounded in combat. As a part of Blount's physical therapy exercises, she taught veterans who had lost the ability to use their hands, new ways to perform everyday tasks by substituting the use of their teeth and feet. Her ambidexterity and ability to perform tasks with her mouth and feet helped her relate to her patients out of surgery. As she worked each day, Blount observed that one of the biggest challenges for amputees was eating without assistance from other people. A crucial task for many was to relearn the ability to feed themselves. Regaining this skill would restore a degree of independence and increase their self-esteem.

As a nurse and physical therapist, she also cared for and worked closely with Theodore Edison, son of famed inventor Thomas Edison.

Inventions - assistive devices

While working at the Bronx Hospital in New York, Blount invented an electric self-feeding apparatus for amputees. The device had a tube to transport individual bites of food to the patient's mouth. All the patients would simply bite down on the tube and then the food would dispense to the mouthpiece from the attached machine that would dispense the next portion of food to the patients' mouth when prompted. A part of the device was patented in 1948. The American Veterans Administration (VA) declined Blount's invention, so in 1952 she licensed it freely to the French government. She remarked in an interview with the Afro-American that her accomplishment showed that "a colored woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind" She also devised a neck frame for an injured or ill patient, that holds a bowl or cup close to their face as a "portable receptacle support" and in April 1951, Blount was granted U.S. Patent 2,550,554 . During her career, Blount was a physical therapist to Thomas Edison's son, Theodore Miller Edison. Blount and Edison became close friends. During that time she invented the emesis basin. The basin was a kidney-shaped disposable cardboard dish made out of flour, water, and newspaper that was baked until the material was hard. Once again, the U.S. showed no interest in Blount's invention. She sold the rights to her invention to a company in Belgium. Her design is still used in Belgian hospitals. Modern, slimmer devices have been invested since 1948, but Blount is remembered for pioneering into the space with the first electric device for feeding amputees.

Forensic science career

In 1969, Blount embarked on a second career, in law enforcement, pursuing forensic science research for police departments in New Jersey and Virginia. During her previous patient therapy, while demonstrating ambidextrous functions, or writing with teeth or feet, she had begun to see a correlation between physical health and writing characteristics. From her observations, she saw how a person's handwriting reflected their state of health. This discovery inspired her to publish a technical paper on "medical graphology." She was the first American woman admitted as a student at the Document Division of the Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Laboratory in London, England. After the publication of the paper, Blount's career in forensics quickly grew. By the late 1960s she was assisting police departments in Norfolk, VA and Vineland, New Jersey, and later joined the Portsmouth, Virginia police department as a chief examiner. In 1977, the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) Forensic Science Laboratory invited Blount to join them in London for advanced studies in graphology. On returning, Blount started a consulting business, using her forensic experience to examine documents and slave papers from the pre-civil war. Blount operated that business until the age of 83. Her verification of authenticity was also used on Native American treaties with the United States.

Media appearances

Blount made numerous attempts to interest the VA in her inventions but they declined, despite the devices' evident beneficial impact. To promote the inventions, she appeared on the WCAU Philadelphia television show The Big Idea in 1953. Blount was the first African-American woman to be on the show. No transcript is available, but it is reported she repeated that she had proved "A black woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind."

Blount wrote a featured column for the African-American newspapers, the N.J. Herald News and the Philadelphia Independent.

In 2008 she undertook but was unable to complete one more project: founding a museum on the grounds of her old Virginia schoolhouse which had burned down, to commemorate the contributions of those who had studied there.

Honors and awards

Blount was honored in 1992 by The American Academy of Physical Therapy, an African American focused physical therapy organization.

Virginia Women in History in 2005.

Personal life

In 1951, Blount married Thomas Griffin. They had one son, Philip.

Death

Blount died at the age of 95 on December 30, 2009, at her home in Newfield, New Jersey.

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