Bessie Blount Griffin: the woman who invented the electric feeding tube used by over 3 million people today

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 28, 2024 7:01 AM EDT
Bessie Blount Griffin. Photo credit: Public Domain

Nutrition is essential for everyone. However, due to illness, swallowing difficulties, injury, loss of appetite, medical operations and a myriad of other reasons, a person may be unable to consume any or enough food. Feeding tubes therefore provide nutrition to those who cannot eat or drink safely by mouth. Over 500,000 people in the United States and more than three million people globally use enteral feeding tubes. This lifesaving medical device is the legacy of a Black woman, Bessie Blount Griffin whose ingenuity often went unappreciated in her lifetime.

She used rudimentary equipment and worked from her kitchen to invent the electric feeding tube. A nurse, physical therapist, forensic handwriting expert, and inventor, Blount defeated the prevailing norms to not only save millions of lives but also etch her name in history.

“Forget me. It’s what we have contributed to humanity—that as a black female we can do more than nurse their babies and clean their toilets,” Blount said about how her inventions reflected on the abilities and contributions of Black women.

Born in Hickory (now Chesapeake), Virginia, on November 24 1914, she began her education in a one-room schoolhouse. The school, Diggs Chapel Elementary School was built by African Americans after the Civil War so their children could get an education. Blount naturally tended to write using her left hand and had her knuckles rapped by the teacher every time she picked up a pencil to write. It was the custom to teach all students to write using their right hand. She took her punishment as a challenge. Although she primarily wrote with her right hand, Blount maintained her skills with her left hand and also learned to write with her teeth and feet. These techniques would later prove invaluable when she became a physical therapist.

After she finished the sixth grade, Blount had to develop her own education plan as the schools in her hometown did not offer higher education to Black children. Her family relocated to New Jersey where she self-studied and earned the equivalent of a GED. Blount then attended a nurse’s training program at Community Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Newark that was run for and by African Americans. She continued her education at Union Junior College and Panzer College of Physical Education and Hygiene following the completion of her nursing degree.

As a physical therapist, Blount taught World War II veterans who returned as amputees new ways to perform everyday tasks. She used innovative techniques to teach her patients how to conduct ordinary tasks, such as writing, with their feet or mouths. Some of them even learned how to read Braille with their feet. However, many of the veterans she helped were severely injured and had lost the use of their legs or their arms. Blount wanted them to have a genuine sense of autonomy and live more independently without having to rely on support staff to feed them. She began to formulate a means to help those who could not feed themselves.

She took on the challenge and began tirelessly working on her idea in her kitchen using rudimentary equipment. With a file, an ice pick, a hammer, dishes, and boiling water, Blount melted plastic into a mold. She spent ten months designing the prototype of a self-feeding device that could deliver individual bites of food from an attached machine with a simple bite on the tube. The device was for people who had either undergone upper limb amputation or paralysis. Blount then spent four more years and a total of $3,000 of her own money to create an improved model made of stainless steel and included built-in support for a food holder.

Although her invention enabled patients to eat without assistance from others, The American Veterans Administration (VA) rejected it. They declined to purchase to purchase her devices instead preferring to use caregivers. Blount eventually gave up on getting her electric feeding tube accepted by the V.A. and approached foreign organizations. She found a Canadian company to manufacture it and licensed it freely to the French government. France began using it in 1952.

Blount did not stop at inventing the first electric device for feeding amputees. She came up with a device called portable receptacle support that could allow a person with arm injuries to hold something close to their face. While working as a physical therapist to Thomas Edison’s son, Blount invented a disposable emesis basin (the kidney-shaped basins used in hospitals for medical waste). She developed a paper that could be mixed and baked, was relatively easy to mass manufacture and could be disposed of after use. Once again, Blount received no interest from the VA. She sold the rights to her invention to a company in Belgium where a a model of her basic design is still used in hospitals.

A multi-talented persona, Blount’s skills extended beyond the medical realm. She discovered while working in various hospitals that to a certain extent, a person’s handwriting reflected their overall state of health. She published this information in a technical paper on “medical graphology” and people soon began flocking to her for her opinion on forgeries. Consequently, Blount began a new career assisting police departments in Vineland, New Jersey, and Norfolk, Virginia. She became the first Black woman to train and work at Scotland Yard in 1977 after the FBI director turned down her application.

“A black woman can invent something for the benefit of humankind,” Blount once told a reporter. The three million people who are able to live a fuller life thanks to her invention certainly agree.