2 Bessie Blount: Inventor of Assistive Medical Devices

Amy Minervini

[The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is: 9.89]

Bessie Blount in 1958 helping a disabled war veteran write with his feet. She later invented a feeding device to help veterans become self-sufficient.
Photo courtesy of the Elmira Star-Gazette/Elmira Advertiser

Bessie Blount was born in Hickory, Virginia, in 1914. She was an excellent student at Diggs Chapel Elementary School, a one-room schoolhouse, which began “at the end of the Civil War to educate the children of free black people, former slaves and Native Americans” (McNeill). She was left-handed and learned to write with her right hand after her teacher kept hitting her knuckles. She was not only ambidextrous but also gifted in writing with her feet and teeth. After sixth grade, Black and Native American students were not required to be publicly educated, so she continued studying on her own.

Eventually, Blount applied to a college in New Jersey and was accepted into its nursing program. There she was trained at the only hospital owned and run by Black people in the state. After graduating, she volunteered to help amputee victims coming back home from WWII. Just like she had taught herself alternative writing methods many years ago, she taught soldiers how to use their feet and teeth to write (McNeill).

She went on to become a physiotherapist and sometimes worked with artists and photographers and modeled for medical sketches. This is how Blount learned to draw, which encouraged her to draw her ideas. One invention in particular required patients with mobility issues to use their mouths to achieve daily tasks:

Turning her kitchen into her workshop, she spent ten months designing a device for those who had either underwent upper limb amputation or paralysis. Then, she spent four more years and a total of $3,000 of her own money to build it. Her creation would shut off automatically after each bite, so that the individual could control their own feeding. She also designed and built a non-automatic food receptacle support, for which she received a U.S. patent, that affixed to an individual’s neck and could hold a dish or cup. (McNeill)

Blount's prototype drawing of portable receptacle support
Blount’s “Portable Receptacle Support,”  U.S. Patent and Trademark Office


Although the Veteran’s Administration turned down her invention, the French military sought this high quality device, and so she gave them her invention for free. “‘A [Black] woman is capable of inventing something for the benefit of mankind,’” she said afterwards. In the months and years that followed, her device inspired over 20 new patents for assistive devices, all referencing Blount. She also invented the kidney-shaped vomit basin, a design still used in today’s clinics. 

While she was a nurse, she noticed how her patients’ handwriting would change as they passed through the various stages of physical therapy. Blount eventually made a career change and turned to forensics, specifically handwriting analysis. She was the first African American woman trained at Scotland Yard and for years worked as a handwriting expert.

When asked if she would donate her inventions to African American museums, she refused, saying she didn’t want folks charged money to see them. Instead, she said, “I’ll take them to schools, where the kids can hold them, touch them. . . .I tell them, ‘You’re a part of history’” (Padnani).



Writing Prompts

Narrative: Bessie Blount worked on designing and refining one of her inventions for 5 years. While it may not have been for 5 years, share a story about something that you worked long and hard to accomplish. Write about any stumbling blocks and triumphs that you encountered along the way. Be as detailed as you can in your descriptions. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.3

Informative: What does a handwriting analysis expert (or forensic document examiner) do or look for when examining script or written material? What type of training is need, and where can one get trained to do this type of job? Make sure to cite your sources. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2

Persuasive: While it’s not uncommon for people to have multiple careers over a lifetime (like Bessie Blount), it’s also true that some folks hold the same main job for most of their lives. There are benefits to both! Argue for which you think is better or more satisfying–exploring multiple jobs or holding one main job–and give reasons and examples as evidence. Please cite any sources you use. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.1

Creation/Application: Look around your home or school or classroom and think about ways in which these areas could be more accommodating and accessible to those with physical disabilities or the elderly. Narrow your ideas down to one idea that you can draw (or print on a 3D printer) that would make a daily task easier. As an individual student or as a class, there are a number of contests where you could also enter your amazing ideas depending on the time of year, including: IDEATE, Make:able, and Instructables.

Works Cited

“Bessie Blount.” Lemelson-MIT, lemelson.mit.edu/resources/bessie-blount. Accessed 13 July 2022.

McNeill, Leila. “The Woman Who Made a Device to Help Disabled Veterans Feed Themselves—and Gave It Away for Free.” Smithsonian Magazine, 17 Oct. 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/woman-who-made-device-help-disabled-veterans-feed-themselvesand-gave-it-away-free-180970321/. Accessed 7 July 2022.

Padnani, Amisha. “Overlooked No More: Bessie Blount, Nurse, Wartime Inventor and Handwriting Expert.” The New York Times, 28 Mar. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/03/27/obituaries/bessie-blount-overlooked.html. Accessed 13 July 2022.


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