FSU film faculty produces PBS documentary featuring pioneering generation of women doctors

“Daring Women Doctors: Physicians in the 19th Century,” airing nationally on more than 90 percent of PBS stations throughout July. Interns at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, photo courtesy of Drexel University Archives and Special Collections.

Becoming a doctor during the 19th century was difficult for anyone to accomplish. For women, the feat was nearly impossible.

Now, that rare accomplishment will be featured in a new documentary from Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts filmmaker in residence Valerie Scoon. The film, “Daring Women Doctors: Physicians in the 19th Century,” is airing nationally on more than 90 percent of PBS stations throughout July.

CMPA faculty member Valerie Scoon
CMPA faculty member Valerie Scoon

“We are very proud of CMPA faculty member Valerie Scoon, and the students and alums who worked with her on this project,” said Reb Braddock, dean of the College of Motion Picture Arts. “It’s a great success story that demonstrates the kind of synergy and opportunity that our Torchlight Center provides, fulfilling its mission to create a bridge from education to industry.”

Scoon, who wrote and produced the film, oversees the script development of graduate and undergraduate thesis films.

The film, “Daring Women Doctors,” follows the challenging and illuminating history of 19th-century women doctors and was completed through a collaboration with Scoon’s film company, True Visions, Inc., the FSU College of Motion Picture Arts Torchlight Center Studios, the FSU Center for the Advancement of Human Rights and local PBS affiliate WFSU.

“I am very excited to share the untold story of these intrepid and diverse, early women physicians,” Scoon said. “To become doctors, they had to overcome enormous obstacles.”

Hidden in American history, women’s medical schools began to appear in the mid-19th century, long before women had the right to vote or own property. “Daring Women Doctors” highlights the fearless, pioneering and diverse women who faced hostility and resistance in their pursuit of a medical education.

Eliza Grier
Eliza Ann Grier, American physician. Photo courtesy of Drexel University Archives and Special Collections.

“This film offers a rare, intimate portrayal of the pioneering generation of women in medicine, whose grit, perseverance and audacity opened the doors for women in medicine around the world,” said Eliza Lo Chin, executive director of the American Medical Women’s Association. “These incredible stories will empower women today, even as they seek to achieve full equity within the medical profession.”

Scoon said that through the work of abolitionists and women’s rights supporters, medical schools first opened a decade before the Civil War and 70 years before the 19th Amendment.

“Unfortunately, this early history of women physicians has been drowned out in recent years,” Scoon said. ‘“Daring Women Doctors’ aims to inform and challenge us all to live up to our goals without the restrictions of gender expectations.”

This history of early American women physicians resonated with Scoon ever since she learned about Eliza Grier, a child born into slavery who became a physician, while visiting the Black History Museum in Thomasville, Georgia.

“Curious as to where she attended medical school, I learned of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, which started in 1850 and would last for over 100 years,” Scoon said. “I was intrigued by this unfamiliar history, and I was eager to learn about women such as Ann Preston, a Quaker and abolitionist, who would be in the first class, and Emeline Cleveland who would become the first surgeon, and many others.”

The project received funding from women physicians in the Tallahassee community and a grant from Schlesinger Library at Harvard University.

“I am grateful for the support of the FSU Film School and the extended FSU family,” Scoon said. “It was gratifying working with former students of the FSU Film School and now colleagues Carolina Garrigo as associate producer/editor and Ian Edward Weir as cinematographer and postproduction.”

The actual making of this documentary was executed with a talented crew of FSU faculty and alumni.  In addition to Garrigo, and Weir, the film was narrated by faculty members Jennifer Riker and Erika Stone, alumna Ashley James and loyal supporter of the film school Dave Schmeling.

During Scoon’s time with the FSU College of Motion Picture Arts, her students have won 10 Student Emmys. Prior to joining the faculty, Scoon was an executive at both Warner Bros. and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo films where she oversaw projects, such as “Malcolm X” and the Golden Globe-nominated, “The Great Debaters.”

For more information or to stream this documentary, check your local PBS station listings.