Bessie Blount Griffin was a physical therapist who, from her experience in rehabilitating patients following the Second World War, pioneered new methods that encouraged injured veterans to regain their independence. She later took up a career in forensic science, consulting as a top document examiner in both the U.S. and Scotland Yard.
Born in 1914 in Virginia, little is known of Bessie’s early life, except that she had a strong desire to work in the medical field. This ambition eventually came to fruition when Bessie trained as a physical therapist at Panzer College of Physical Education (later Montclair State University), and upon completing her training transferred to a veteran’s hospital in Chicago to assist World War II amputees. With many severe disabilities brought on by the war, this work was in high demand, and Bessie spent several years guiding the veterans in new ways to perform simple tasks after the loss of the ability to use their hands and feet. It was during this time that she began to pioneer groundbreaking assistive technologies that would help her patients conduct their everyday tasks unassisted.
In light of the major challenges that these disabilities posed to eating, Bessie was first inspired to invent an electronic feeding device for patients who could no longer raise food to their mouths. The device was controlled by the patient biting down on the delivery tube, which administered small mouthfuls of food with each bite, allowing the patients to eat their meals at their own pace without requiring assistance.
Though this represented a clear step forward for recovering veterans, Bessie hit a brick wall when trying to patent and sell her invention. Many medical supply companies refused her device on the grounds that the machinery was too large for hospitals to adequately equip. Bessie then refined her device and invented the portable receptacle support, a similar device that allowed patients to support a dish or a bowl in a brace around their neck and retrieve small mouthfuls of food from a tube in a similar manner. The reception was successful, and in 1951, Bessie received her first U.S. patent.
Despite wide recognition as a successful inventor, Bessie was still met with disinterest from the U.S. Veteran’s Administration, despite the potential benefit of her devices to the lives of thousands. However, she eventually sold her inventions internationally to France and Belgium, who had actively sought out new ways to support their WWII survivors.
It was whilst working as a physical therapist and carer that Bessie formed a close friendship with Theodore Edison (the son of famous inventor Thomas Edison) with whom she shared many of her ideas. Theodore’s company was producing her inventions by the 60’s, and it was with Theodore that Bessie was inspired to develop her third invention – the disposable emesis basin, used to remove medical waste. Although this was again met with disinterest in the U.S., Bessie successfully sold the procedure to the Belgian government where it received wide application over the following decades.
In 1969, Bessie changed directions and began a career in forensic science, where she joined law enforcement offices across Virginia and New Jersey. Progressing quickly, Bessie became the chief document examiner of both the Vineland and the Norfolk Police Department laboratories by 1972, and eventually submitted an application for the FBI. She was not deterred when this was unsuccessful, and instead moved to the UK to work in Scotland Yard (thus becoming the first black woman to take up employment there).
Up until her death in 2009, Bessie continued to run her own business as a forensic science consultant. She specialized in historical records, providing expertise on the authenticity of pre-civil war slave ‘papers’ and Native American treaties within various museums, all the while continuing to assist in special investigations for a number of law enforcement agencies across America.
A tireless problem solver, Bessie overcame the frequent resistance she encountered to her inventions with an unwavering determination to keep helping those in need. Her trailblazing applications within physical therapy allowed veterans worldwide to regain independence following their often severe disabilities – an achievement for which Bessie is remembered as a caring and dedicated role model.