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Black History Month and Physical Therapy

Bessie Blount Griffin- Physical Therapist Pioneer

Black History Month is a time dedicated to recognize, appreciate, and shine a light on the accomplishments and contributions of people of color. Throughout history, African Americans have been pushed to the shadows and gone unannounced. Physical Therapy, while still a fairly new science, is not guiltless- this month, we've done some research……….

Countless people of color helped build western medicine (not to mention hundreds of years of eastern traditions). We found one woman we would like to highlight in our blog post today. You may or may not have heard of her incredible leaps and bounds in the medical world, but we couldn't go without introducing you to Bessie Blount Griffin: writer, nurse, physical therapist, inventor, and forensic scientist.

Bessie Blount Griffin was born on November 24, 1914. A native of Virginia, Blount hails from the Hickory, Virginia community in Princess Anne County (now known as the city of Chesapeake).

She attended school at Diggs Chapel Elementary in Hickory, Virginia; a school built for African American children after the Civil War.

The elementary school didn't have current textbooks. They obtained outdated copies from a nearby school for white children. Like many African American schools, access to resources was limited. Bessie was reprimanded for being left-handed and forced to write with her right hand. However, she maintained her ability to write left-handed and even taught herself to write with her teeth and feet for fun. This was an interesting precursor to her contributions to the physical therapy world……. who would have thought?!

Ms. Griffin attended Community Kennedy Memorial Hospital's nurse program, in Newark, New Jersey. After obtaining her nursing degree, she continued her education at Panzer College of Physical Education and Hygiene in East Orange, New Jersey, and became a physical therapist.

As a post World War I physical therapist, she cared for many soldiers who lost limbs in service. She worked with veterans who lost the ability to use their hands. Blount taught patients to perform everyday tasks by using their feet and teeth in place of hands.

Blount observed one of the biggest challenges for amputees; eating without assistance. Regaining independence in feeding increases patient self-esteem.

After observing feeding struggles, Blount invented the first electric self-feeding apparatus for amputees. The device utilized a tube to lift individual bites of food to the patient's mouth. The patients bit down on the tube and the next portion of food dispensed to the mouthpiece from the attached machine. A portion of the device was patented in 1948. The American Veterans Administration (VA) declined Blount's invention. In 1952 she licensed it freely to the French government. She remarked in an interview with the Afro-American that her accomplishment showed "a colored woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind." She also devised a neck frame for injured and ill patients. The device holds a bowl or cup close to the patients’ face as a "portable receptacle support." In April 1951, Blount received a US patent for the receptacle.

Blount cared for and worked closely with Theodore Edison, son of famed inventor, Thomas Edison. Blount and Edison became close friends. He helped her bring many of her ideas to life. With his help, she invented the disposable emesis basin, a vessel used to collect vomit in hospitals. The vessels were made from a mixture of cardboard scraps, paper mache, and water. The mixture was then baked to dry out. The receptacle held liquid but was also affordable and disposable. Once again, the U.S. showed no interest in Blount's invention. She sold the rights to her invention to a company in Belgium. Her design is still used in Belgian hospitals.

Like many African American people in the US, Ms. Blount’s history is not well documented.

As our society progresses towards enlightenment surrounding the past atrocities and current prejudice against people of color in the US, we must take time to uncover the pages of black history that have been tucked away from our history books. While we are grateful to now know who Bessie Blount was, there are many names we have yet to learn and accomplishments not yet celebrated.

Let's use Black History Month as a reminder to dig deeper in our communities and history to appreciate everything we've built together!

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