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FSU Filmmaker Documents Drama Of Nineteenth Century Women Doctors Of Color

Eliza Grier

Few women in the America of the 1800s became medical doctors. Fewer still came from an enslaved past. But Eliza Grier's story of gritty determination in the face of nearly insurmountable obstacles is now being shared with PBS viewers across the country.

A story with its origins in nearby Thomasville, Georgia is being shown nationwide all this month. It focuses on a heroic woman who was determined to make medical care available to those who might otherwise never see a doctor.
Valerie Scoon has been a professor at Florida State University's College of Motion Picture Arts for the past fifteen years. But even before that, she was a filmaker at Warner Brothers and Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Films. As such, she's always on alert for real-life stories that might make a crackling good movie.

"You know, I came across the story of a doctor named Eliza Grier when I was visiting a small Black museum in Thomasville, Georgia," Scoon recalled. "And I saw on the wall a picture of this African-American woman and they said she'd been a doctor and she'd practiced in Thomasville and other places in Georgia in the 19th Century."

The deeper Scoon delved, the more fascinated she became with Grier's saga.

"And it also stated that she had been an enslaved person when she was born and that she ended up going to medical school. But in order to pay for it she had to go south and pick cotton for a year and then had to return to medical school for a year. And this went on for 8 years before she could become a doctor and then practice. And I thought, 'That's a good story!' All my days working in Hollywood told me this was a person who faced challenges and obstacles and persevered and it was also historical, which appealed to me."

But still, Grier lived at a time when very few women aspired to become medical doctors and the barriers were even higher for women of color.

"So I thought, 'Where did she go to medical school?' And that's when I discovered the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania. And I discovered it was a medical school that started in 1850 before the Civil War and lasted for over 100 years and I'd never heard of it. And so exploring that was what led to the documentary."

What perhaps attracted Scoon most was how Grier and her handful of pioneering female collegues provided a kind of care that was simply unobtainable otherwise.

"Looking at the 19th Century I was really fascinated by the fact that these women were interested in using the knowledge that they already had, perhaps as homeopaths, to help women especially learn more about their bodies and hygiene. There was so much ignorance at that point that I was impressed by how much these women doctors fought to improve things."

Of course, any cinematic project, even one produced under the auspices of the FSU Film School with the help of several talented alums, takes money. So Scoon pitched the project before a small group of Tallahassee women doctors.

"I showed them an 8-minute clip of the documentary and I could tell how much they had to talk about their own lives and how they got educated as doctors and some of the gender stereotypes that they encountered that it a relevant topic."

The female docs coughed up some supportive cash and Scoon also obtained a grant from Harvard University's Schlesinger Library. Thus was born "Daring Women Doctors: Physicians in the 19th Century." And all this month, the documentary is airing on ninety percent of the PBS stations in America.

"So here locally, WFSU, which is a presenting station for the documentary, is going to be airing on July 13th at 10 p.m. And then after that airing it should be available for streaming over the next 30 days."

It's a tale of national and even international significance. And to think it got started when filmaker Valerie Scoon made a casual visit to Thomasville's Black History Museum.

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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