Learning Black History Year Round
When she was 7 years old, Bessie Blount Griffin was slapped on the knuckles for writing with her left hand. So she taught herself to write with a pencil in her mouth and with her toes, because if it was “wrong to write with my left hand, then it was wrong to write with my right hand.”
That incident, along with her creativity, would drive her throughout her extensive career as a nurse, physical therapist, inventor and forensic handwriting and document analyst.
Blount was born in Hickory, Va., in 1914. After moving to New Jersey with her family, she studied nursing at Kenney Memorial Hospital and then went on to study physical therapy at Union Junior College, becoming a licensed physiotherapist.
Many of Blount’s patients were World War II veterans whose arms had been amputated. She taught them to write with their teeth and feet. A doctor at Bronx Hospital suggested Blount create a device the patients could use to feed themselves. And she did.
Blount spent 10 months developing her first design of what she called an invalid feeder. She worked in her kitchen, and used plastic, a file, an ice pick, a hammer, dishes, and boiling water to melt the plastic into a mold.
In April 1951, Blount received a patent for part of the design. She spent the next four years and $3,000 making improvements creating a working model made of stainless steel, which she demonstrated at a New Jersey hospital. She received a standing ovation.
To operate the invalid feeder, a patient would bite down on a tube to activate a motor and a morsel of food would be dispensed through a spoon-shaped mouthpiece.
The device would automatically shut off between each delivery, allowing the patient time to chew.
The U.S. government showed no enthusiasm about the invalid feeder and therefore would not pay Blount’s asking price of $100,000.
She then located a Canadian company that agreed to manufacture the device. She eventually signed the rights over to the French government for use in its military hospitals.
As Blount continued working as a nurse, she began noticing patterns in her patients’ handwriting: it would change as they progressed in their physical therapy.
This discovery not only inspired her to publish a technical paper on medical graphology, but also expanded her career in forensics.
In 1969, Blount’s career took a turn: She studied to become a forensic scientist and entered into law enforcement.
As a forensic scientist, she read slave papers and Civil War documents. In 1977, she became the first African-American woman to work for England’s Scotland Yard.
Blount would later start her own business, using her forensic experience to examine documents and slave papers and Civil War documents until the age of 83.
An avid public speaker, Blount traveled nationwide and talked to school audiences, civic groups, and other organizations about her life’s work.
Blount, known as “savior of the handicapped,” died Dec. 30, 2009 at age 95.