In 1914, Bessie Blount was born in Hickory, Virginia. When she started elementary school, her teacher rapped her knuckles for writing lefthanded. Bessie had to learn to use her right hand even though her left was her dominant hand. She also taught herself to write with a pencil in her mouth. Little did she know, that skill would become important later in her life.
Bessie’s formal education ended in middle school. There were no more resources to teach African American children. Undeterred, Bessie continued to study on her own and earn a GED. She studied nursing at a local hospital and then attended what is now Montclair State University to become a certified physical therapist.
Many of Bessie’s patients were World War II veterans with injuries that kept them from feeding themselves or performing other basic life functions. She taught them to use their mouth and feet to perform some of those basic functions – a trick she had taught herself.
Bessie invented an electric self-feeding device for amputees. She got a patent on the device, but the Veteran’s Administration refused to buy it. She then gave the rights to the French, who planned to use it in their military hospitals. When asked why she didn’t cash in on her invention, she replied, “Forget me. It’s what we as a race have contributed to humanity – that as a black female we can do more than nurse their babies and clean their toilets.”
Bessie went on to invent other devices which made the lives easier for those who no longer had full physical capabilities. In most cases, the Veterans Administration rejected using her patented devices.
At age 55, Bessie began a new career. She found a relationship between fine motor skills and some forms of diseases, especially neurological ones. She created a new analytical approach called medical graphology. Her analysis of handwriting became a vital forensic science tool.
In the course of our history, the race or gender of an inventor has often influenced the acceptance of an innovation. Bessie Blount is one of a number of inventors whose ideas were rejected for no reason other than her race and gender. Any innovation can be hard to accept, since by its very nature, innovation offers something new, a break from the status quo. But what sense does it make for the race and gender of the inventor to become a barrier to the acceptance of innovation?
Just imagine the harmful impacts of refusing to accept innovation simply because of the race and gender of the inventor. What possible benefits can there be for such rejections? How should we assess the role of an inventor’s social status when judging their innovations? Suppose Thomas Edison had been African American, would we still be relying on candlelight in our homes? And then there is the issue of gender. What role do you think that played in the rejection of Bessie’s inventions? Women have been inventors for centuries, but few people can name a woman inventor. How does this lack of awareness of women and people of color as inventors impact our society today? If we want to be a society that encourages innovation, how should we address, or redress, this situation?
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“An invention that is quickly accepted will turn out to be a rather trivial alteration of something that has already existed.” – Edwin Land (Co-founder of Polaroid Corporation)
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.