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Making History

Louise Pearce: Pioneer in treating African sleeping sickness

While it is frequently the brilliant surgeon who astounds the world with a new technique, it is often the quiet clinical researcher whose dogged work in perfecting a new treatment who saves the most lives in the long run.

Such was Louise Pearce, M.D., whose research led to a treatment that dramatically reduced the mortality of trypanosomiasis, more commonly known as African sleeping sickness.

The disease is caused by a blood parasite transmitted in the bite of an infected tsetse fly. Indigenous to Africa, it is fatal if not treated, and was raging in epidemic proportions in the Belgian Congo, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1920.

An insidious disease, trypanosomiasis begins with the reddening of the fly bite, followed by fever, rash, swelling of the face and hands, headaches, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes and other symptoms. It gradually progresses to neurological symptoms, including confusion, personality change and sleep disturbances once the infection invades the central nervous system, eventually resulting in the death of the patient.

Pearce, born in Winchester, Mass. in 1885, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Stanford University in 1907, attended Boston University School of Medicine for two years, and then transferred to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, where she was awarded an M.D. in 1912.

About a year after her graduation, Pearce accepted a research position working with Simon Flexner, M.D., a Louisville, Ky. native, who was director of the Rockefeller Institute in New York City. She became the first woman to work on Flexner’s team.

Since the development of an arsenic-based drug called salvarsan in 1910 proved effective in treating syphilis, Flexner’s team was working on developing additional arsenic-based drugs to treat other conditions, including African sleeping sickness. The team was successful in developing a drug later named tryparsamide, which proved effective in curing sleeping sickness in animals.

When it came time to test the drug on humans, Pearce volunteered to travel to the Belgian Congo to administer it a control group of 70 infected patients, with the aim of developing a protocol for testing the drug’s safety, effectiveness and optimum dosage.

Pearce achieved an astounding success rate of about 80 percent in curing the disease, finding that the drug destroyed the parasites in the patients within a few weeks of treatment.

So impressed were Belgian officials with her results, the 35-year-old researcher was awarded the Ancient Order of the Crown and was elected to the Belgian Society of Tropical Medicine. Thirty years later, in 1953, Pearce was further honored for her work by the Belgian government when she was awarded the King Leopold II prize and a check for $10,000.

After returning to the Rockefeller Institute, Pearce was promoted to associate member in 1923. She continued working on syphilis and cancer research. She and Wade Hampton Brown, M.D. discovered a cancerous tumor in a rabbit, the first that could be transplanted to other rabbits. Known as the Brown-Pearce tumor, it was studied world-wide in cancer research.

Pearce received many honors during her career. She served for a year as visiting professor of syphilology at Peiping Union Medical College in China; served on the scientific advisory council of the American Social Hygiene Association; and served as president of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania from 1946 to 1951.

Louise Pearce retired in 1951 and died at her New Jersey home, after a short illness, in 1959.

by Frank Kourt, Staff Writer, KY Doc Magazine

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