Louise Pearce: The doctor who cured the sleeping sickness
Among historical lesbian doctors, Sara Josephine Baker is better known. But her colleague and fellow lesbian Louise Pearce also made her own mark in medical history.
A physician and pathologist at the Rockefeller Institute in the early 20th century, Pearce helped develop a treatment for the African sleeping sickness that cured 80 percent of the cases during an epidemic in Africa.
The Institute gave her the task of administering the cure personally in the Belgian Congo in 1920 and “trusting her vigorous personality to carry out an assignment none too easy for a woman physician and not without its dangers.”
Thanks to Pearce’s efforts in checking the spread of the sickness in the Congo, she received the Ancient Order of the Crown of Belgium as well as the Royal Order of the Lion.
Louise Pearce: An unusual woman of her time
Born and raised in Winchester, Massachusetts in 1885, Pearce was the eldest child of Charles Ellis Pearce and Susan Elizabeth Hoyt.
She took up physiology in Stanford–which was unusual for a woman student at the time– and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1907.
On her course to becoming a doctor, she first went to the Boston University School of Medicine but transferred to the John Hopkins University of Medicine in Baltimore two years later.
After graduating in 1912, she worked for a year at the university hospital before she applied directly to Simon Flexner, the director of the Rockefeller Institute in New York City, for a position.
Flexner was only glad to have a woman on the Institute’s scientific staff and welcomed Pearce on board.
Louise Pearce: Working towards a cure
With the discovery of the arsenic-based Salvarsan treatment for syphilis, Flexner asked his team to find an arsenic compound to treat the African sleeping sickness.
Pearce, her fellow pathologist Wade Hampton Brown, and two chemists were able to find a compound– later called tryparsamide– that had a high rate of effectiveness against the sickness in animals.
But this compound still needed to be tested on humans. This chance came when an outbreak of the sickness happened in the Belgian Congo (or Zaire).
At 35 years old, Pearce volunteered to go on her own to Leopoldville in Africa to test the drug. Studying the drug’s effects on more than seventy patients, she saw that the sickness clear after a few weeks of treatment.
After receiving accolades from the Belgian government for her work, Pearce returned to Rockefeller Institute and was promoted to associate member in 1923.
With her colleagues, she experimented on how tryparsamide could treat syphilis as well as did research on cancer.
Louise Pearce: Lesbian and feminist
Like her colleague Baker, Pearce was a member of the Heterodoxy, which was a feminist luncheon discussion group. She also did her part in advancing women’s causes in the fields of medicine and science.
During her final years, she shared a home at the Trevanna Farm in Skillman, New Jersey with Baker and her partner Ida A.R. Wylie. Pearce died in 1959.