Dr. Louise Pearce

Dr. Louise Pearce volunteered to go alone to the Belgian Congo in 1920 to test a new drug she hoped would cure African sleeping sickness, a disease that was often fatal. She received her M.D. from The Johns Hopkins University in 1912. Looking for work, she wrote to Dr. Simon Flexner, Director of the Rockefeller Institute in New York City, requesting a research position. Dr. Flexner supported her application, and Dr. Louise Pearce became the first woman to work directly with him. In 1910, an arsenic-based drug called Salvarsan was found to be an effective treatment for syphilis. Scientists had hopes of developing other arsenic-based drugs. Dr. Flexner asked his research team to try and find an arsenical compound for use against African sleeping sickness. They succeeded. Tryparsamide, they found, destroyed the infectious agent of sleeping sickness in animals. In 1919, these results were announced in the Journal of Experimental Medicine. A severe outbreak of African sleeping sickness broke out in the Belgian Congo in 1920. While in Africa, Dr. Pearce administered and studied the effects of the tryparsamide on seventy patients. The results were spectacular: the parasites were driven from circulating blood within days and totally eradicated within weeks. Symptoms cleared up and general health was restored in a large proportion of even the most severe cases. Belgian officials were impressed by the results. Dr. Pearce was awarded the Ancient Order of the Crown and elected a member of the Belgian Society of Tropical Medicine. Three decades later, in 1953, she was invited to Brussels to receive the King Leopold III Prize and an award of ten thousand dollars. After her success in the Belgian Congo, Dr. Pearce returned to the Rockefeller Institute, and was promoted to Associate Member in 1923. Teamed with Dr. Wade Hampton Brown, she studied susceptibility and resistance to infection. They discovered they could transplant certain cancers from one rabbit to another. The Brown-Pearce tumor was the first known transplantable tumor, aiding research into malignant tumors in cancer laboratories around the world. By 1940, more than two dozen hereditary diseases and deformities were studied in the tumors of the research team’s rabbits. After the death of Wade Hampton Brown in 1942, Dr. Pearce focused on writing up their research findings, until her retirement in 1951. After a short illness, she died at her home in New Jersey in 1959.