Louise Pearce: the story of an underappreciated feminist and queer scientist

Louise Pearce was an eminent female physician and researcher of the early 20th century. She dedicated much of her life to the study of disease at the Rockefeller Institute, and received the Ancient Order of the Crown and the Royal Order of the Lion from the nation of Belgium due to the successful implementation of her work in the colonized area now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Pearce was also a queer woman and a feminist who engaged in the issues of her day through a debating group called Heterodoxy.

Pearce was born in Massachusetts in 1885 and graduated with a bachelor’s in physiology from Stanford University in 1907. She then studied medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine and John Hopkins University of Medicine. In 1913, Pearce applied to the Rockefeller Institute and became the only woman on the scientific staff. During these formative years, Pearce studied trypanosomiasis, or African sleeping sickness6. Trypanosomiasis is an epidemic blood parasite that is transmitted by the “tsetse fly (Glossina species), which is found only in sub-Saharan Africa”1. Pearce worked closely with Walter Jacobs and Michael Heidelberger, two chemists, to test new arsenic compounds alongside Wade Hampton Brown in animal models. Ultimately, the four scientists “determined that tryparsamide was the most promising drug”5.

In 1920, Pearce travelled to Africa on behalf of the Rockefeller Institute, which trusted her “vigorous personality to carry out an assignment none too easy”7. While in Léopoldville, Belgian Congo6, the indomitable Pearce worked in a clinic to develop the protocol for testing “the drug’s safety, effectiveness, and optimum dosage”5. With her research, tryparsamide cured close to 80% of trypanosomiasis patients and remained the “standard treatment” for decades5. Pearce gained international recognition for this accomplishment. 

During the remainder of her career, Pearce “spent 31 more years researching syphilis and cancer”4. Tryparsamide became a widely-used treatment of syphilis until its replacement by penicillin7, and her collaborative study of tumors lead to the discovery of the Brown-Pearce tumor, a malignant epithelial tumor which “became standard test material in cancer laboratories” and was studied worldwide3. She became the president of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, and received honorary doctorates from Beaver College, Bucknell University, Wilson College, and Skidmore College4.

In her personal life, Pearce was an active member of Heterodoxy, a feminist forum and debating group that explored radical ideas beyond even the suffrage movement of the time2. Heterodoxy rules required that a prospective member “not be orthodox in her opinion”, and the group is notable for its many lesbian and bisexual members2. Pearce lived with two other members of Heterodoxy, Sara Josephine Baker and I. A. R. Wylie. While there is no record of Pearce openly or explicitly identifying her orientation, Wylie described herself extensively as a “woman-oriented woman”3 and her relationship with Baker was accepted and documented within their circle. Pearce and Wylie continued to live with each other after Baker’s death in 1945 until their own deaths in 1959. All three women were buried alongside each other at the Trevenna Farm family cemetery in New Jersey3

Pearce’s life and legacy as a queer woman in science cannot be forgotten or erased. The hardships associated with being a female scientist are compounded by orientation. Her indomitable personality and accomplishments allowed her to establish herself as a well-respected researcher and physician nevertheless. Moreover, Pearce dedicated herself to feminist social issues and theory, which she pursued through Heterodoxy. Louise Pearce remains an important figure in queer science history.

Sources

1. “CDC – African Trypanosomiasis.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9 Mar. 2020, http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/sleepingsickness/index.html#:~:text=African%20Trypanosomiasis%2C%20also%20known%20as,only%20in%20sub%2DSaharan%20Africa.

2. Crocco, Margaret  Smith. “Heterodoxy.” Historical Dictionary of Women’s Education in the United States, by Linda Eisenmann, Greenwood Press, 1998, pp. 193–194.

3. “Daily Spotlight.” LGBT Daily Spotlight, 22 Feb. 2020, lgbtdailyspotlight.com/march-5th-2017-people/.

4. “Female Scientists.” FCPS Pride, fcpspride.org/female-scientists/.

5. “Hospital Centennial.” The Rockefeller University ” Hospital Centennial, 2010, centennial.rucares.org/index.php?page=African_Sleeping_Sickness.

6. “Louise Pearce: The Doctor Who Cured the Sleeping Sickness.” Lesbian News, 17 Oct. 2016, http://www.lesbiannews.com/louise-pearce-lesbian-doctor-sleeping-sickness/.7. “Sara Josephine Baker and Louise Pearce.” CBD College, 7 Feb. 2019, http://www.cbd.edu/2017/06/27/sara-josephine-baker/.

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