AAUW Member Saves Lives: Dr. Louise Pearce

A man leans over a small West African girl and gives her medication

Louise Pearce’s work led to the development of medicine to treat the deadly sleeping sickness. Image by U.S. Army Africa, Wikimedia Creative Commons

August 17, 2015

It seems that there’s nothing AAUW members can’t do. Throughout our history, our members have borne witness to major world events, been elected or appointed to political office, fought for justice, and even developed new drugs that cured fatal diseases. Louise Pearce (1885–1959), who helped stop a deadly epidemic, is no exception to this rule.

A black-and-white photo of Louise Pearce

Research Pathologist Dr. Louise Pearce. Image via the Smithsonian Institution

At a time when women were widely restricted from pursuing higher education, Pearce earned not only a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University but also a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine, graduating third in her class. In 1913, Pearce broke barriers once again when she was hired as the first woman research pathologist at the renowned Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.

Working with the institute’s director, Simon Flexner, Pearce helped pioneer research on a treatment for trypanosomiasis. Also known as African sleeping sickness, the disease was responsible for killing two-thirds of the Ugandan population in 1901. Together, Pearce and Flexner found that giving tryparsamide to animals destroyed the infectious agent of the disease. When a second outbreak occurred in 1920 in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Pearce volunteered to travel alone to administer and study the effects of the new drug on 70 infected patients. The results were outstanding: The treatment successfully eliminated the parasite and eradicated the disease within weeks. In honor of her work, the Belgian government presented Pearce with the prestigious Order of the Crown and later, in 1953, awarded her the Order of Leopold II — given to recognize distinguished service in the Congo — along with $10,000. As further recognition, Pearce was elected a member of the Belgian Society of Tropical Medicine.

An established trailblazer for women in science, Pearce continued her innovative work after she came back from the Congo. She was promoted to associate member of the Rockefeller Institute and began studying susceptibility and resistance to infection with Wade Hampton Brown. These efforts led to the discovery of the Brown-Pearce tumor — the world’s first known transplantable tumor — which helped inform cancer research in laboratories across the globe.

Throughout Pearce’s career, her research and skills laid the groundwork for medical advancements to come. At the same time, she was also dedicated to helping other women advance in science and medicine so that they could have opportunities like she did. In addition to serving as president of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and as a board member of the American Medical Women’s Association, Pearce chaired AAUW’s International Relations Committee. She remained an active AAUW member throughout her life, advocating alongside other AAUW members for women’s equality not only in medicine but in all fields.


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