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Bessie Blount, France (1951)
On this date, we mark the birth of Bessie Blount in 1914, an African American inventor and forensic scientist.
She was born in Hickory, Virginia. Little else is known of her family or her childhood except that she had long wanted to work in the medical field. Blount left home and traveled north to New Jersey to become a physical therapist. She studied at both Panzar College of Physical Education and at Union Junior College. Then she moved to Chicago where she finished her training.
After graduating, she began working with injured World War II amputees. The war had left many people severely disabled and her work was in great demand. It was while working with amputees that she began to develop devices that would assist her patients in regaining their independence. By 1951, Blount was living in Newark, N.J., and teaching physical therapy at the Bronx Hospital in New York.
Eating was a great challenge for many of the handicapped people she was working with. She taught people to do the work that their feet and hands once did. For example, she invented a device that delivered food through a tube, one bite at a time, to a mouthpiece that could be used whether the patient was sitting up or lying down. When the person wanted more food, he just bit down on the tube and it signaled a machine to send the next morsel.
This electric self-feeding device eventually was donated to France. In 1951, she patented a simpler device called a "portable receptacle support" which also allowed people to feed themselves. It used a brace around the neck to support a bowl, cup, or dish. Blount also appeared on the Philadelphia television show “The Big Idea” in 1953, Becoming the first Black and the first woman to be given such recognition.
While her inventions had the potential to revolutionize the lives of many people, getting them patented and marketed for use by patients was not easy in the United States. Frustrated by the lack of interest by the American Veteran’s Administration, Blount signed the rights to her other inventions over to the French government with the statement that she had proven "that a Black woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind.”
Around this time, she became a close friend of Theodore M. Edison, the son of Thomas Alva Edison, who invented the electric light. She was caring for Mrs. Edison’s mother in East Orange, N.J. blount and Theodore Edison held many in depth scientific and other midnight conversations. The two shared development of ideas for his company as well.
Blount is also the inventor of the disposable cardboard emesis basin. She designed this from old newspapers, cake flour, and water, shaping it and baking it in her own oven. Again, the American Veteran's Administration Hospital wasn’t willing to use her invention and it was never patented in America. These (now slightly modified in design) basins are currently in use all over the country of Belgium. American hospitals still use the old standard kidney shaped basins of 1913.
Many of Blount’s trail-blazing efforts and inventions made the lives of everyone safer from disease and since World War II have been influential in helping disabled military personnel gain independence.
In 1969, Blount began a career in forensic science with law enforcement, including the departments in Vineland, N.J., and Norfolk and Portsmouth, VA, becoming, by 1972, the chief document examiner for their laboratories.
In 1977, Blount became the first Black woman to train and work at Scotland Yard, after J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director, turned down her application. A religious woman motivated by personal drive and the inspiration of inventor Louis Latimer and others, Blount still ran her own business at the age of 83. She used much of her forensic training to examine and research the authenticity of African American slave “papers” and pre-Civil War documents. Blount has worked with material from Native-American treaties made with the United States. She also serves as a consultant in “special investigations” for many law enforcement agencies while being a member of the South Jersey Chapter.
In 2007, Blount was inducted into New Jersey's Cumberland County Black Hall of Fame. She was also honored with the state's Joint Legislative Commendation. Bessie Blount died on December 30, 2009 in Newfield, New Jersey.
Bessie Blount, personal
Letters to the African American Registry
PO Box 19441
Minneapolis, MN 55419