Bessie Blount

Bessie Blount spent her life helping others as a physical therapist. She invented a device that greatly increased the quality of life for amputees. Bessie Blount has been called a "savior of the handicapped" for her invention that allowed World War II disabled veterans to feed themselves, and for her unique method of teaching them to write again.

Bessie Blount was born in Hickory, Virginia in 1914. Born as a left-hander Bessie Blount was often slapped on the knuckles for being a south paw and like many people of the time was forced into using her right hand. Blount figured that if she shouldn't write left handed, she shouldn't write with her right. So she taught herself to write with a pencil in her mouth. And with her toes, it was a skill that would be helpful in training amputees to write without their hands.

Bessie Blount was always interested in a career in medicine. She moved from Virginia to New Jersey where she studied to be a physical therapist at the Panzar College of Physical Education and at Union Junior College and then furthered her training as a physical therapist in Chicago. By the time World War II ended, Bessie Blount was a practicing physical therapist. Many of her patients were amputees from the front lines. Blount taught the amputees how to use their feet instead of their hands to do some basic tasks. Eating, however, was almost impossible to do in this manner. Consequently, the men needed help to feed themselves which was discouraging for them. Blount saw this as an opportunity to try to invent something to help these men regain some independence and lift their spirits. In 1951, Bessie Blount started teaching Physical Therapy at the Bronx Hospital in New York.

Her first invention was a feeding device which she designed in 1951. Her patented feeding tube allowed amputees to feed themselves. The electrical device allowed a tube to deliver one mouthful of food at a time to a patient in a wheelchair or in a bed whenever he or she bit down on the tube. She would later present it to the American Veteran’s Administration but they wouldn’t be interested. She Also 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. In 1953, on the television show "The Big Idea", Blount presented her inventions. She was the first African American and the first woman to have ideas featured on the show. Even after this, she found very little support in the United States.  The French government eventually bought her inventions, and put them to great use for their wounded soldiers.

As a physical therapist, she later discovered the need for an emesis basin. She came up with the idea of a disposable cardboard emesis (vomit) basin. She baked a mixture of newspaper, flour and water in her oven to make the basin. She designed one and again took it to the American Veteran’s Administration. Once more, she was told they had no interest in the invention so she sold her patented equipment to Belgium. To this day Bessie Blount's vomit basin design is commonly found in hospitals in Belgium.

In 1969, Bessie Blount’s life pursuits changed. She studied to become a forensic scientist and went into law enforcement. While she was a forensic scientist, she read slave papers and Civil War documents. In 1977, she became the first African-American woman to go to work for England’s Scotland Yard.

Click on the links below for detailed information and photos on African American scientists and inventors who rose to the top of their field

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There is a well-documented trend of growth among black or African American female medical school graduates. Since 1986, the proportion of female graduates has increased 53%, and the proportion of male graduates has declined 39%.

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