The Marshall University Department of Social Work will host a documentary film screening Thursday, April 28, about the life of George Rashid, a young Lebanese/Syrian man who traveled to America in 1901 and was ostracized for the lesions on his skin.
Dr. Peggy Harman, one of the film’s producers and the director of the department’s Master of Social Work program, said these lesions were treated as leprosy by Dr. James Cunningham of Pickens, West Virginia. She said this diagnosis led to a life of discrimination and hardship for Rashid and resulted in his nickname of the “Leper of Pickens.”
However, Harman said that after conducting extensive research, the diagnosis of leprosy is questionable.
“Many people were ‘leprophobic’ at that time and there were numerous people being diagnosed with leprosy that were later found to have had diseases caused by occupational byproducts,” Harman said. “In George’s case, he was working in a paper mill. My research revealed that many people who developed skin lesions while working in paper mills during that era were misdiagnosed with leprosy.”
Rashid was diagnosed in 1906. Harman said she hopes audiences will consider how uneducated assumptions can lead to tragic consequences.
“George was only 17 years old when he arrived in America in 1901 with a group of Maronite Catholics, full of hope for his future. He was in essence a missionary – someone who could be the son of any modern-day religious youth group who travels abroad. George’s English was not perfect and most people could not understand him,” Harman said. “He went from seeking medical attention to becoming an international sensation, much like the Ebola outbreak of today. I hope this film will appeal to that portion of all of us that is sometimes quick to judge people and situations without benefit of the facts.”
Harman noted other interesting elements of the film, including how Rashid’s case was discussed in two congressional hearings as well as several medical journals including The Journal of the American Medical Association.
“The case received special attention from many doctors including Dr. Thomas Stedman, who is well known as a pioneer in the medical field and as the editor of ‘Stedman’s Medical Dictionary,” Harman said. “The film also focuses on the direct impact Rashid’s case had on the creation of the modern-day public health system in West Virginia, which was finally established around 1913.
With grant funding from the West Virginia Humanities Council, Harman and her husband, Jason, the film’s producer, videographer and editor, spent nine months shooting and editing the documentary, which will be shown for the first time at 7:15 p.m., April 28, in Smith Recital Hall on Marshall’s Huntington campus.
“Jason and I hope to create more documentaries together about our West Virginia stories. Our families go back to the mid-1700s in what is now West Virginia, so we have been given the gift of many generations of oral histories,” Harman said. “We all need to remember that other than the Native Americans, our families got their start in America by traveling from other countries. Our various cultures are rich with customs that make us a great country. I believe America is much like my grandmother’s patchwork quilts – a patchwork of people with a common thread.”
The film screening is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served with a discussion to follow. To learn more about the documentary screening of “George Rashid: The Leper of Pickens,” contact Harman at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 304-696-3146.