My guest on this episode of The Influence Continuum was Pamela Ryckman, who wrote the book Candace Pert: Genius, Greed, and Madness in the World of Science. Science and health institutions can mimic cult-like behaviors and dysfunctional systems when the structures within them become overly competitive and focused on limited resources to obtain professional goals. Ideals of collaboration for the good of the public can become crushed under systems of harmful competition and dogmatic attachments to old-fashioned ideas. The life story of Candace Pert, who discovered the opioid receptor, is a clear demonstration of how women and minorities have often been undermined, excluded, or driven out of that system. Virtually unheard of by most, her life work included significant discoveries in mind-body medicine, HIV treatments with Peptide T, and volumes of scientific research and publishing over her time working within the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Mental Health.  

Pamela Ryckman is an Emmy-winning producer and writer focusing on women in the workforce. She noted how the story of Candace Pert’s life work provided an ideal launchpad to discuss some of the most pressing issues plaguing science and healthcare today. Ryckman is also the author of the book Stiletto Network: Inside the Women’s Power Circles That Are Changing the Face of Business, which discusses the secret society of the world’s most powerful women shaping an underground movement for change. She has written for The New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post, and many other publications.  

Candace Pert was a brilliant, cunning maverick in the medical science field whose discoveries continue to shape important aspects of health in society today. However, as Ryckman described during our conversation, Pert has virtually been forgotten by the world despite her paradigm-shifting work in the medical field. Her discoveries linking the mind and body are only beginning to emerge as foundational elements of our scientific understanding of holistic health. Unfortunately, Pert has received little recognition as the pioneer and founder of this research and its continued contributions to medicine today.  

As Ryckman reminded us, many women and minorities have often been excluded from the course of history, especially in scientific fields, and their discoveries were co-opted or overshadowed by those in white male society. Her biography about Candace Pert provides an excellent opportunity to analyze further the systems and cultures that continue to propagate these areas of discrimination. Some aspects of the scientific medical community that we discussed as problematic include competition for limited financial resources, dogmatic attachment to scientific findings, the importance of prize-winning lineage, and “publish or perish” cultures.  

The results for Pert included being snubbed from recognition of her work as the discoverer of the opioid receptor, with much of the accolades going instead to her advisor and mentor, Solomon Synder. Furthermore, as an individual suffering from Bipolar Disorder, Pert’s condition was often exacerbated by a scientific community focused on deprivation of sleep and nourishment, with competition for limited resources always at the forefront of professional survival. As Ryckman named it, it is often the “cult-like nature of the scientific establishment.”  

Throughout Pert’s career, this dichotomy of genius combined with madness propelled her forward while working within a dysfunctional system. As Ryckman described one of her research goals for the book on Candace Pert, she sought answers to the questions, “What happens when rules are broken, and standards break down? What happens when the very institutions charged with upholding public health are, to their very core, rank with sickness? What turns a good woman bad?” Ultimately, as Ryckman stated, Pert became both the victim and propagator of modeled white male behavior within the system. Toxic leadership qualities prized in the scientific communities for men became critical of Pert’s organizational pursuits in many ways.  

Pert’s work during the AIDS crisis once again illustrates the backdrops of prejudice and discrimination often found in the medical science fields. Ryckman discussed limitations or cuts in funding due to the initial association of HIV as a problem only in homosexual populations. Only when the virus began to infect blood supplies and affect children did money begin to be made available for research. Pert was then asked to investigate why AIDS affected the brain and caused symptoms of dementia. She researched receptors in much the same way as she had with opioids despite resistance by the established community. Her discovery of Peptide T was initially overlooked and buried but later was distributed through her unauthorized coordination with the underground ACT UP grassroots political group working to end the AIDS pandemic.  

As we wrapped up the interview, Ryckman and I discussed the unfortunate side effects of cut-throat competition in the medical science field. We emphasized how the tragic aspects of Candace Pert’s life demonstrate an opportunity to explore a different system of science that works more collaboratively. Ryckman encouraged people to use Pert’s story to take a closer look at healthcare and other systems and ask the question, “Are they healthy?” Finally, I reminded everyone how necessary it is to be committed to good values- to aspire to goodness, to help others, and to continue thinking about future generations. In this way, we also advance towards a healthier world.  


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Candace Pert by Pamela Ryckman | Hachette Book Group 

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