New TV Pilot About Science Pioneer & LGBTQ Icon Louise Pearce

DISTEMPER is a new television pilot that tells the story of Dr. Louise Pearce, an openly gay pathologist who, in 1918, helped cure African sleeping sickness and saved an estimated two million lives. She was the first woman to hold a research position at the Rockefeller Institute. Her unprecedented life, both professional and private, begs the question: Why have we never heard of Dr. Pearce?

This story inspired biologist and writer Max Pitagno to create a pilot for a television series centered on Dr. Pearce, which won the inaugural Science and Technology Script Competition at the North Fork TV Festival, part of a new partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Uniquely, the Festival then produced the first episode of what they hope will be picked up for a six-episode mini-series.

The pilot, directed by Elias Plagianos, stars Abigail Hawk (BLUE BLOODS) and Chiké Okonkwo (BEING MARY JANE). It premiered on October 4 at the Greenport Theater in Long Island, and we sat down with Max Pitagno the day after to talk about Dr. Louise Pearce’s story and his hopes for the production.

Science & Film: How did you first hear about Louise Pearce?

Max Pitagno: My background is in biology and I discovered Dr. Pearce in a college class. We were learning about the advent of arsenic-based drugs and my professor quickly ran [through her story] in less than five minutes. He said, this woman went to the Congo in 1920s and she saved two million people from African sleeping sickness. I was kind of taken aback, I mean, that’s all you get for saving two million people? I thought, who the hell is this woman? Anybody [working] by themselves in the Congo seems incredible, but especially a woman in 1918. [Then I found out that] her personal life is amazing in it of itself—being an open, polyamorous lesbian in 1918 was completely unheard of.

S&F: Yeah, still pretty challenging.

MP: Still pretty challenging, absolutely. Combine that with her professional life, where she’s literally responsible for saving millions of lives, and I was shocked that this hadn’t been covered more closely by anybody. I thought, I have to pay tribute to this amazing person who it seems has been cast aside. Certain scientists are starting to take more interest in her now.

S&F: So how did you go about researching her if little has been written?

MP: There are historical sources that you can find online, but there wasn’t much about her before she went to the Congo. Afterwards, she received the Royal Order of the Lion, the highest honor the Belgian Government can bestow to a foreigner.

S&F: You said you were studying biology, how did you get interested in screenwriting?

MP: Honestly I wasn’t really interested in scriptwriting—it was a great hobby, but to make a career of it I don’t know if I’m talented enough, if it’s a long shot. But once I had this opportunity to chase this dream down and see if I could make a go of it, I just had to take it. So it’s been amazing.

S&F: What do you imagine the scope of the series to be?

MP: We are thinking of it as a mini-series centered around [Dr. Pearce’s] work in the Congo. We’re hoping to shine a light not only on her but also the carnage dealt on Congo by the Belgian government, which is also not very well known—surprisingly. Hopefully we’ll pay a fair tribute to both of those things.

Traditionally, most of the central Congo was kind of uninhabited, which is odd, but the whole reason it’s not is because of the tsetse flies, because you really can’t live there. Tsetse flies cause sleeping sickness. If not for these flies, there’d probably be a huge Congolese Empire. Once the Belgians came to the Congo and cut down a lot of the forests with reckless abandon for the rubber, they spread it to the entire area, including to Uganda. [They caused] a lot of inadvertent damage.

S&F: When we meet Louise Pearce in the pilot episode she’s studying syphilis. How did that relate to sleeping sickness?

MP: At that point syphilis treatment was arsenic-based, and I believe there was a mercury-based cure before that, and the issue was that if you dosed it wrong you’d go insane. Arsenic was better than mercury but the cure was almost as dangerous as the disease. It’s almost an early form of chemotherapy. Going blind from syphilis treatment was not unheard of at the time. Louise Pearce was building on the work of Paul Ehrlich and coming up with more effective and less harmful arsenic-based care for syphilis. She parlayed that into a cure for African sleeping sickness.

[Syphilis and African sleeping sickness] are both [caused by] pathogens, they’re both transported through the bloodstream. Arsenic is incredibly caustic to a number of things so they might have just figured, it’ll probably work, and then they got it right. We are going to address that in the series a little bit, the fact is that they went right into human trials in the Congo. There wasn’t a lot of oversight. The [scientific] standards were different back then but still they probably would have gone through a more comprehensive animal trial before they tested this drug out on human beings if it was in the United States or the Western world. Because it was in Africa they knew people were going to turn a blind eye and they could test this out—as cold as it sounds. And thank god it was effective right away… And that’s what we really want to examine.

Louise Pearce was a hero, no doubt, but she’s also a morally complex character. She had the right intentions, I truly believe, but maybe with the enormity of everything, going from New York City to southern Africa where you’re by yourself, you’re a woman–and this is before the internet or even phones in that area–and how shocked she must have been to have seen people maimed, to see thousands of people dead and burned. Maybe she felt urgency, maybe she legitimately felt like: I don’t have time to mess around with animal trials, I need to see if we can save people.

S&F: Another aspect of the story that the pilot scrutinizes is that scientists don’t operate independently—there are funding structures that are necessary for research and implementation.

MP: That’s true. These are complex issues. She was operating within complexities, under a tremendous amount of stress and in an alien environment. Another thing she was grappling with, which we touched upon, was trying to be like her partner Sara Joe Baker, who found Typhoid Mary. Sara Joe Baker was the mother of epidemiology, you could say. She was a very interesting person, and a little better-known than Dr. Pearce.

S&F: Had she already discovered Typhoid Mary at the time that Louise Pearce was starting to look into sleeping sickness?

MP: Yeah. That’s another theme that we’re playing with—vanity versus altruism. In a perfect world one should be saying: I’m a scientist and I’m doing this for the common good, I don’t care about accolades, I don’t care what people say about me. But in reality sometimes a pat on the back feels pretty good.

S&F: But also sometimes you have to believe in yourself to the extent that you’re willing to take risks.

MP: Yeah, vanity is a little harsh.

S&F: Pride maybe.

MP: Pride, much better. Pride versus altruism. And that’s kind of everybody in the sciences. In a perfect world everybody who gets a Nobel Prize melts it down, sells it, and uses that money to help the poor.

S&F: Louise Pearce’s story is fantastic, please keep me posted on what happens.

MP: It’s a great story. Here’s this person that most people have never even heard of who literally saved millions and is personally a trailblazer. Being the first woman in the Rockefeller Institute is an aside to the rest of her career! I really feel passionate about this.

Maxl Pitagno has a degree in biology and worked until recently in a Fungal Genetics lab. The North Fork TV Festival in Long Island was founded by Noah and Lauren Doyle in 2015 and seeks to recognize independent scripted television. DISTEMPER was written by PItagno, directed by Elias Plagianos, and stars Abigail Hawk and Chiké Okonkwo. Stay tuned to Science & Film for news on the series.