Griffin, Bessie Blout 1914–
Bessie Blout Griffin 1914–
Physical therapist, inventor, forensic scientist
During World War II, many different inventions were innovated as ways to help the war effort. Bessie Blout Griffin, a physical therapist who assisted amputees at various U.S. veterans’ hospitals during the war, created new tools that would help those with physical disabilities. Griffin’s most famous invention was a device that allowed disabled people in wheelchairs feed themselves without the use of their hands. While many of her inventions were not readily accepted by the United States government, she found much success in foreign countries such as France and Belgium who also were looking for ways to support their soldiers who had come back from the war with disabilities.
Bessie Blout Griffin was born Bessie Blout on November 24, 1914, in Hickory, Virginia. Not much is known about her early years and family life other then the fact that her parents highly valued education and pushed Griffin to succeed in her early studies. It is also known that she was influenced in her early life to study medicine due to relatives she had in this field, but it is not known how close these relatives were to Griffin.
By the 1930s Griffin had graduated from high school and headed north to Panzer College of Physical Education (later Montclair State University) in East Orange, New Jersey, in order to get her degree to work as a physical therapist. Griffin studied and graduated from Panzer in the mid-1930s and then went on to study at Union Junior College in Roselle, New Jersey. During the 1940s, America entered the second World War and there was a great need for medical personal across the country. For a time, Griffin stayed in New Jersey and worked at the veteran’s hospital there, but she soon transferred to a veteran’s hospital in Chicago.
Much of Griffin’s work at the veteran’s hospitals focused on physical therapy involving amputees and those soldiers who had otherwise lost the use of their limbs. Griffin broke many boundaries while working with these soldiers, teaching them how to compensate in many ways that were not standard practice at the time, such as using their feet in place of a hand or a limb that was no longer functional. Griffin, however, realized that for certain tasks no amount of physical therapy was going to be completely successful. It was these tasks that Griffin focused on and began inventing around.
One of the first inventions that Griffin developed was an apparatus that assisted in the feeding of people who were not able to use their limbs to reach their mouths. The device consisted of a tube that was attached to a mouthpiece which fed into a larger machine. When the user bit down on the tube, the machine, powered by electricity, delivered a bite-size portion of food to the mouthpiece which could then be eaten with the mouth alone. This allowed the user to eat an entire meal at their own pace without needing assistance. It wasn’t long before Griffin began to use this machine in her physical therapy to great success.
While it was clear that Griffin had made an advance in the field of physical therapy, she had a difficult time obtaining a patent for her idea and faced the even more arduous task of convincing medical supply companies to sell the device. Many of the companies said that the machine was too large and bulky and that no hospital
Born Bessie Blout on November 24, 1914, in Hickory, VA; married Griffin, 1951. Education, Panzer College of Physical Education, physical therapy degree, 1930s; attended Union Junior College, 1930s.
Career: Physical therapist, 1930s-1969; inventor, 1940s-1960s; Vineland Police Department, forensic scientist, 1969-1970s; Norfolk Police Department, forensic scientist, 1970s; Portsmouth Police Department, chief document examiner, 1970s-1977; Scotland Yard, forensic scientist and agent, 1977–1980s; forensic consultant, 1990s-.
Addresses: Home —New Jersey.
would have room to store one for each patient. Hence, in the late 1940s, Griffin redesigned her idea. The new version, called the “Portable Receptacle Support,” was a tube that was attached to a bowl or a dish, which was connected to a brace that the person could wear around the neck. While not as useful in providing bite size portions, it did allow the user to eat at their own pace, and again allowed for the user to eat without assistance. In March of 1948 Griffin applied for a patent for her “Portable Receptacle Support” and on April 24, 1951, she received her first U.S. patent, No. 2,550,554.
Even though Griffin was now a recognized inventor, it did not help her to sell either of her original ideas in the United States. She again approached different medical-device makers and even brought her ideas to the U.S. Veterans Administration, but was met with only disinterest. Finally, in 1952, Griffin gave up her endeavors in the United States and turned her sights to foreign countries. It wasn’t long before the French government contacted her and purchased her “Portable Receptacle Support,” for use in their military hospitals. She is quoted as saying in a New York newspaper, and later reprinted on the African American Registry website, that her sale of the device proved “that a black woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind.”
Married in 1951 to a man by the last name of Griffin, Griffin moved first to New York and then back to New Jersey. She continued to work in the medical industry, both as a physical therapist and an inventor. In the mid-1950s Griffin became the personal assistant and caretaker of the mother-in-law of Theodore M. Edison, the son of the famous inventor Thomas A. Edison. It wasn’t long before Griffin became a close friend with Edison and began sharing her ideas for inventions with him. By the 1960s Edison’s company had already produced two of her inventions. A third invention, disposable cardboard emesis (regurgitation) basins, which she created from a baked combination of newspaper, flour, and water, never took hold in the United States, but was purchased by the Belgian government and many are still used in Belgium hospitals today.
In 1969 Griffin switched gears and began a career in forensic science. She started out in the Vineland, New Jersey, Police Department, but would move on to work in Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia. She advanced quickly in her new career and was the chief document examiner in Portsmouth by 1972. Yet Griffin had even bigger aspirations. In 1976 she turned in an application with the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). She was turned down by then director J. Edgard Hoover, but this spurred her onto apply to other high ranking law enforcement offices. This resulted in a first for Griffin for in 1977 she became the first black woman to train and work at Scotland Yard, the British equivalent of the FBI
Griffin worked as a forensic scientist into the 1990s when she retired and started her own business. She now does a good deal of freelance forensic work, both in the areas of law enforcement and in historical records. She has authenticated many African-American slave “papers” and Native American treaties for various museums and she is often taken on as a consultant for law enforcement investigations in New Jersey.
“Bessie Blout,” About Inventors, http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blblout.htm (February 2, 2004).
“Bessie Blout,” Colors of Innovation, Bucknell University, www.listproc.bucknell.edu/archives/fernecon-l/200302/msg00086.html (February 2, 2004).
“Bessie Blout,” Memphis Schools, www.memphis-schools.k12.tn.us/schools/craigmont.mi/BessieBlountpart2picture.htm (February 2, 2004).
“Besie Blout Griffin,” Cal Poly Poma University, www.csupomona.edu/~plin/inventors/blout.html (February 2, 2004).
“Savior of the handicapped, Bessie Blout,” African American Registry, www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/2143/Savior_of_the_handi-capped_Bessie_Blout.html (February 2, 2004).
“Women Inventors,” Holt Rinehart, and Winston-Lemelson Center Invention Features, www.hrw.com/science/si-science/chemistry/careers/innovative_lives/womeninventors.html (February 2, 2004).
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