Bessie Blount was a physical therapist, an inventor, and a forensic handwriting expert. She broke many barriers to obtain an education and become a nurse and physiotherapist. She made a significant difference in the lives of veterans who were wounded in the second World War.
During the war, Blount came in contact with veterans who had lost their independence due to arm amputations or paralysis. They were unable to feed themselves, making them dependent on others. Bessie recognized that the ability of a person to engage in this basic action offered independence that was deeply needed by veterans.
Adaptive technology for people with disabilities was not widespread at the time. Undaunted, Blount spent five years inventing a device that would enable a person to feed themselves at their own pace and then arranged for a company to manufacture it. Unfortunately, the veteran’s administration was not prepared to provide rehabilitation to the large number of those who needed it, and they turned down her offer of the device. She persisted for three more years, eventually going to the French government and offering them the rights to the device for free. They took her up on her offer in 1952, and her device was life-changing.
More than 50 years later, she made it clear that giving away her invention was about showing that a black woman “is capable of inventing something for the benefit of mankind.”
“Forget me,” she said. “It’s what we have contributed to humanity—that as a black female we can do more than nurse their babies and clean their toilets.”
Blount also assisted veterans and other people with disabilities in learning to write. Born left-handed, she recalled in interviews how her teacher would hit her knuckles for writing with her left hand. She responded to this treatment by teaching herself how to write with both hands, her feet, and even her teeth. Blount put this experience to use with the soldiers who lost the use of their hands and taught them to write with their feet or teeth.
This focus on writing led her to a second career in forensic handwriting. She worked in the US and abroad and eventually became an expert consultant to law enforcement and others. She consulted with museums and historians to determine the authenticity of historical documents, including Native American treaties and papers relating to the slave trade and the Civil War.
More than 20 patents for assistive technology were inspired by Blount’s feeding device. A variation of another one of her inventions, a disposable basin, is still in use in European hospitals today.
Sources: Smithsonian Magazine and Lemelson-MIT