Monday, March 5, 2018

Louise Pearce - medical trailblazer

A medical pathologist, Louise Pearce (March 5, 1885 – August 10, 1959) was the first female scientists hired at the Rockefeller Institute, where she studied treatments for African sleeping sickness. She traveled to the Belgian Congo in 1920 to carry out trials of the drug she helped develop, which had an impressive 80% cure rate. Her research involved studying disease in rabbit colonies over several generations, where she was able to isolate diseases to study their transmission and immunology.

Education was important in her family. When she was still quite small, her family moved from Winchester, Massachusetts, to southern California. When it was time for her to attend school, she studied at the Girls Collegiate School in Los Angeles, where she took classes in a wide range of academic studies. In 1907, she graduated from Stanford University with a degree in physiology and histology, the study of microscopic anatomy of plant cells and tissues. She continued her studies at Boston University and earned her MD from Johns Hopkins, where she graduated third in her class.

Her attention to detail and dedication to her research made her an ideal pathologist, and in 1913 she was hired as a researcher at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. She was the first woman hired there, and she remained there for her entire career. It was here where she began her important research on treatment for sleeping sickness, an epidemic that was devastating entire regions across Africa.

After performing numerous animal trials her team found that the drug tryparsamide was quite successful in treating the disease in rabbits, the closest animal model to the human course of the disease. They published their results in 1919. In 1920, she traveled to the Belgian Congo, at considerable risk to herself, in order to carry out human trials to determine the drug's safety, effectiveness, and appropriate dosage. At the time, the Belgian Congo, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was a colony of Belgium, and was controlled through state violence against the native populations who were often conscripted into working to help deplete the natural resources. At the time of her arrival, post-World War I, efforts were underway to improve the country's economic infrastructure to support private companies. The horrific brutality of the Belgium regime of Leopold II is well documented now, but it is unclear if Louise Pearce was aware of it before she agreed to travel, or what her motivations were aside from a humanitarian need.

Working closely with a local hospital and laboratory, her research met with immediate success. For a disease that was nearly always fatal, she was able to cure more than 80% of infected patients, even those with late-stage illness. For her life-saving research, she was awarded the Order of the Crown of Belgium, and elected as a member of the Belgian Society of Tropical Medicine.

After returning to the states, she then turned her attention to the treatment of syphilis, using the same drug. Because the two diseased operated in similar ways in humans, she suspected it would be an effective treatment for syphilis of the brain and spinal cord, as well as the chronic form of the disease. It was, and tryparsamide became the standard treatment until the discovery of penicillin in 1950.

Much of her research was performed on rabbits, and it was during this time that she discovered a malignant epithelial tumor that was then transferred to several other rabbits, each showing a variation in malignancy. She began to study these differences in an effort to understand its transmission, growth and remission. This tumor, referred to as the Brown-Pearce tumor, became the standard test material in cancer research. And she spent much of the rest of her career studying the relationship between the basic health of an organism and its probability of developing disease. Her research focused on rabbit subjects, and during her many trials she was able to isolate the rabbit pox virus and study its transmission and immune reactions.

But she did not spend all of her time working in the lab. She was a member of Heterodoxy, a feminist debating group in Greenwich Village. She taught at several prestigious institutions, including Peiping Union Medical College in China, and sat on the board more than 15 medical associations, including the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, where she also served as president from 1946 to 1952.

She spend the latter part of her life living on a farm in New Jersey with two other women, author I. A. R. Wylie, and public health physician Sara Josephine Baker, who is most well known for having tracked down Mary Mallon (aka "Typhoid Mary), the first person identified as an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever. There is some speculation that they were probably romantically involved, perhaps in a polyamorous relationship, but there is no definitive documentation. Wylie and Pearce are buried next to each other at the farm's little cemetery, though, which supports the idea that they were more than simply platonic friends.

Louise Pearce lived her life on her own terms. She was fortunate to have been able to pursue her education at a time when college education for young women was still quite rare. She was both a groundbreaking medical researcher and trailblazer for other women in medical science, dedicated to improving the lives of her patients and opening new doors to women in all fields.

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For more information:

The Rockefeller University: "Louise Pearce – An Extraordinary Woman of Medicine"

AAUW: "AAUW Member Saves Lives: Dr. Louise Pearce"

Al Jazeera: "Unsung Hero: Louise Pearce"


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