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Mary Van Brittan
Inventor of the Home Security System
African American nurse Mary Van Brittan Brown, devised an early security unit for her own home. She and her husband took out a patent for the system in the same year, and they were awarded the patent three years later, in 1969. Home security systems commonly used today took various elements from her design.
Inventor of the improved ironing board
Sarah Boone was a 19th century African American dressmaker who was awarded a patent for her improved ironing board.
Who Was Sarah Boone?
Sarah Boone was an African American dressmaker who made her name by inventing the modern-day ironing board. In her patent application, she wrote that the purpose of her invention was "to produce a cheap, simple, convenient and highly effective device, particularly adapted to be used in ironing the sleeves and bodies of ladies' garments." With its approval in 1892, Boone became one of the first African American women to be awarded a patent.
Boone was born Sarah Marshall near the town of New Bern in Craven County, North Carolina, in 1832. The daughter of enslaved parents, she earned her freedom at one point; some sources say it came with her 1847 marriage to James Boone, a free African American. The couple went on to have eight children.
Utilizing a network tied to the Underground Railroad, Boone migrated with her husband, children and widowed mother to New Haven, Connecticut, prior to the Civil War.
The family settled into an African American neighborhood near Dixwell Avenue, where Boone worked as a dressmaker and her husband as a bricklayer, until his death in the mid-1870s. According to records, Boone was successful enough to own her own house.
Hailing from an area where it was illegal to teach African Americans to read and write, Boone finally took steps to overcome that disadvantage in her late 40s, possibly through her membership at the Dixwell Congregational Church.
Ironing Board Patent
Facing fierce competition, Boone had to find a way for her dresses to catch the eye of customers. By the early 1890s, she hit on something that was tailor-made for the corsets that were popular in the era.
To that point, dressmakers were primarily ironing their clothes on a wooden plank placed across two chairs, a method that was fine for a wide skirt but ill-suited for the contours of tight, fitted material. Boone's solution was to create a narrower, curved board that could slip into sleeves and allow for a garment to be shifted without getting wrinkled. Her creation also was padded, to eliminate the impressions produced by a wooden board, and collapsible for easy storage.
Demonstrating the writing skills she had acquired only a few years earlier, Boone applied for a patent for her new and improved ironing board in 1891. She was awarded U.S. Patent No. 473,653 on April 26, 1892, making her one of the first African American women to earn that formal distinction for inventors.
Death and Legacy
Boone died of Bright's disease on October 29, 1904, and was buried alongside her mother and husband in New Haven's Evergreen Cemetery. Although there is little evidence that she benefitted from the commercialization of her invention, Boone's ironing board is recognized as the prototype for what became an indispensable household item over the following decades.
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Sarah Boone Biography
Charles R. Drew, MD
Developed the Blood Bank
Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science is named in honor of the brilliant African-American physician, famous for his pioneering work in blood preservation. The University, in its emphasis on service to the community, draws its inspiration from the life of Drew, whose short 46 years were full of achievements, learning and sharing of his knowledge to benefit mankind.
Charles R. Drew was born June 3, 1904, in Washington, D.C. He attended Amherst College in Massachusetts, where his athletic prowess in track and football earned him the Mossman trophy as the man who contributed the most to athletics for four years. He then taught biology and served as coach at Morgan State College in Baltimore before entering McGill University School of Medicine in Montreal. As a medical student, Drew became an Alpha Omega Alpha Scholar and won the J. Francis Williams Fellowship, given annually to the top five students in his graduating class. He received his MD degree in 1933 and served his first appointment as a faculty instructor in pathology at Howard University from 1935 to 1936. He then became an instructor in surgery and an assistant surgeon at Freedman's Hospital, a federally operated facility associated with Howard University.
In 1938, Drew was awarded a two-year Rockefeller fellowship in surgery and began postgraduate work, earning his Doctor of Science in Surgery at Columbia University. His doctoral thesis, "Banked Blood," was based on an exhaustive study of blood preservation techniques. It was during his research on this topic at Columbia's Presbyterian Hospital that his ultimate destiny in serving mankind was shaped, as World War II created a vital need for information and procedures on how to preserve blood.
With wartime casualties mounting and the wounds and injuries seen by physicians becoming more severe, the need for blood plasma intensified. Drew, as the leading authority in the field, was selected as the full-time medical director of the Blood for Britain project, and he supervised the successful collection of 14,500 pints of vital plasma for the British. In February 1941, Drew was appointed director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank, in charge of blood for use by the U.S. Army and Navy. During this time, Drew argued that authorities should stop excluding the blood of African-Americans from plasma-supply networks. However, after the armed forces ruled in 1942 that the blood of African-Americans would be accepted but would have to be stored separately from that of whites, Drew resigned his official posts.
But his accolades continued. The NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal in 1944 in recognition of his work on the British and American projects. Virginia State College presented him an honorary doctor of science degree in 1945, as did his alma mater Amherst in 1947.
Drew returned to Freedman's Hospital and Howard University, where he served as a surgeon and professor of medicine from 1942 to 1950.
On April 1, 1950, Drew was driving with three colleagues to the annual meeting of the John A. Andrews Association in Tuskegee, Alabama, when he was killed in a one-car accident. The automobile struck the soft shoulder of the road and overturned. Drew was severely injured and rushed to nearby Alamance County General Hospital in Burlington, North Carolina. In the words of his widow, "everything was done in his fight for life" by the medical staff. However, it was too late to save him.
At his untimely death, Drew left behind a devoted wife, Lenore, four children and a legacy of inspirational, unstinting dedication to service for all people. In 1981, the U.S. Postal Service paid tribute to Drew by issuing in his honor, a stamp in the GREAT AMERICANS Series.
Our University continues to honor his legacy by pioneering in health and education.