Thomas Narven Lewis was born in Lower Buchanan, Grand Bassa, Liberia, around 1870 (exact date unknown). He left his village at a young age to attend a mission school in Grand Cape Mount far from his home. The headmistress there was impressed by his academic performance and recommended he go to the U.S. for further studies. He came to America in 1892 and first attended Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, V.A. from 1895 to 1898. He then attended Lincoln University from 1899 to 1902 where he earned his BA. After this he went on to attend medical school at the Syracuse University College of Medicine and graduated in 1907. Lewis wanted to do more to help his community, so he returned home to Liberia where he worked hard to make improvements for his people. Not only was he a physician there, but he also helped build a school and hospital, and instituted a shoe-making trade. He also purchased materials that would help his people learn to weave cloth and grind sugar, establishing further trades for them.
An important contribution Lewis was known for was his reduction of the Bassa language to a written one, known as the Bassa Vah script. Previously the language of his people had mostly been verbal. He figured out how to make characters that would fit a printing press and developed this script during his time at Syracuse University, as he used the printing press at a shop where he was interning. The shop was owned by L. Frank Baum, who also wrote the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Lewis died around 1935, although the exact date is unknown. Sadly, it was believed that the Liberian government was not tolerant of his efforts to improve society (due to various political reasons) and orchestrated his early death through food poisoning. Despite this, it was clear he had a lasting and important impact on the Bassa language and people.