Innovators: Bessie Blount Griffin

Episode Summary

Bessie Blount Griffin (1914-2009) has gone largely unknown. But her mission to help disabled veterans, and her ingenious devices, left their mark on medical history. Her impressive career spanned from nursing and inventing to forensic handwriting analysis.

Episode Notes

Bessie Blount Griffin (1914-2009) has gone largely unknown. But her mission to help disabled veterans, and her ingenious devices, left their mark on medical history. Her impressive career spanned from nursing and inventing to forensic handwriting analysis.

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Episode Transcription

Hi! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Elsa Majimbo. This is Womanica.

Today’s innovator has gone largely unknown. But her mission to help disabled veterans, and her ingenious devices, left their mark on medical history. Her impressive career spanned from nursing and inventing to forensic handwriting analysis. 

Let’s meet Bessie Blount Griffin. 

Bessie was born in Hickory, Virginia on November 24, 1914. When she was a child, Bessie attended a one-room school house called Diggs Chapel Elementary school. 

When Bessie was about seven years old, she was trying to complete an assignment in class. But her teacher rapped her knuckles hard. The reason? Bessie was born left-handed. At the time, left-handedness was often erroneously stigmatized as a sign of evil. The teacher, therefore, wanted Bessie to learn to write with her right hand. But, that’s not exactly what she did. While Bessie did teach herself to write with her right hand, she also taught herself how to write  with her feet, and her mouth. This would prove to be a uniquely important skill. 

Bessie attended Union Junior College in Cranford, New Jersey, and went on to train as a nurse in Newark, at the only hospital in the state owned and run by Black people at the time. Eventually, Bessie received her license as a physiotherapist. 

As Bessie was honing her skills as a therapist and nurse, the U.S. formally joined World War II. So, Bessie volunteered as part of the Red Cross’s Gray Ladies, treating veterans in New York and New Jersey. These women, so-named for their gray uniforms, were meant to play a non-medical role in patient rehabilitation. Though, that often manifested as occupational therapy and psychiatric care. 

As a volunteer, Bessie worked with severely injured veterans. Some of whom had lost use of their arms or legs, or were amputees. 

After witnessing how difficult it was for many of her patients  to eat independently, Bessie devised a solution. She invented a device that involved a rubber tube and pump, which would allow a patient to feed themselves, without needing to use their hands. The patient could bite down on a tube, which would signal a motor to dispense the food into their mouth. It took her 10 months to develop the first design, working from 1 am to 4 am. 

She then spent years making improvements, finally demonstrating how it worked at a hospital in New Jersey. She received a standing ovation. 

Bessie was proud of the device, but she couldn’t get the Veterans Administration to show any enthusiasm for it. The French government, on the other hand, was very interested. So, Bessie  donated the rights to the device to France and they started using it in 1952.

After all that  work, Bessie  gave her invention away. Reflecting on that choice, she later said: 

"Forget me. It's what we as a race have contributed to humanity - that as a black female we can do more than nurse their babies and clean their toilets."

Bessie continued to invent solutions for the troubles she saw her patients face. One device helped folks with arm injuries hold items like cups or bowls close to their faces. She was granted a patent for this device in April 1951. 

Bessie also became close friends with Theodore Edison, the son of Thomas Edison, after working with the family as a physical therapist. While there isn’t any evidence they collaborated on patents, they did stay up late talking about science and inventing. 

Around this time, Bessie invented a disposable basin that hospitals could use for medical waste. She experimented with newspaper, flour, and water, molding and baking it herself. Yet again, Bessie found it nearly impossible to get anyone in the U.S. to pay her invention any mind. However, Belgium was interested and she sold the rights to a Belgian company. Some Belgian hospitals reportedly still use the design today. 

In 1953, Bessie took her ideas to the small screen. She became the first woman, and first African American to appear on a TV show called “The Big Idea.” 

As a physical therapist, Bessie was often  working with patients on their handwriting. For veterans who had lost their limbs, or suffered hand or arm injuries, Bessie’s ability to write with practically any body part was inspiring. 

Bessie started noticing things in her patients’ handwriting. And this launched her new career: in handwriting forensics. 

By the late 1960s, Bessie had started working with police departments, analyzing forgeries and other documents. She became so skilled at it that in 1977, she was invited to work for Scotland Yard. 

When she returned to the U.S., Bessie started a consulting business. She would examine documents and evidence for court cases, and she also took an interest in deciphering old historical documents.  

Later in life, she would be asked to donate models of her inventions to museums. But she refused – she didn’t want children to have to pay to see her work. Instead,  she’d go to schools and show them off for free. 

At the age of 93, Bessie decided to start her own museum and library on the grounds of her former one-room schoolhouse in Virginia. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to finish that work. 

Bessie died in 2009, at the age of 95. 

All month, we’re talking about innovators. 

For more information and pictures of some of the work we’re talking about, find us on Facebook and Instagram @womanicapodcast. 

Special thanks to co-creators Jenny and Liz Kaplan, who asked me to guest host. 

Talk to you tomorrow!