Alice Ball was the pharmaceutical chemist who developed a medical treatment for Leprosy, giving hope to millions. Leprosy is a dreaded disease. It has been around since biblical times. It is disfiguring and it filled its sufferers with hopelessness. In the US people with Leprosy were forcibly removed from their homes and detained indefinitely in remote colonies. Thanks to Alice’s treatment, many of them were released from the detention centres and allowed to go home to their families.
Alice was born in 1892 in Seattle, Washington to Laura and James P. Ball Jr. She was the grand-daughter of J.P. Ball, the famous daguerreotype photographer. Alice attended the University of Washington and graduated with two degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry in 1912 and pharmacy in 1914. In the fall of 1914 she attended the College (later the University) of Hawaii as a graduate student in chemistry. On June 1, 1915, she became the first African American and the first woman to graduate with a Master of Science degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii. She was also the first woman to teach chemistry at the institution.
Impressed with her chemistry work, US Public Health Officer, Dr. Harry Hollmann, an assistant surgeon at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii asked Alice to help him to develop a method to isolate the active chemical compounds in chaulmoogra oil. For centuries, Indian and Chinese health practitioners had limited success in using the oil to treat Leprosy. The oil could be applied topically but it wouldn’t be able to penetrate deep enough into the body and as a result, people with the disease had some relief but the injections were difficult and patients described them as “burning like fire through the skin”. Through her research, Alice found a successful treatment for those suffering from the disease. She created the first water soluble injectable treatment, something that researchers had been unable to do.
Sadly, she didn’t live to see her treatment being used. During her research, Alice had become ill. When she returned to Seattle, she died at the age of 24. The cause of her death is unknown although it is speculated that she inhaled chlorine gas during her teaching lab work.
Dr. Arthur L. Dean, the chairman of the Chemistry Department at the University of Hawaii continued the research, refining it and using it to successfully treat many patients at Kalaupapa, a special hospital for Hansen disease patients. Dean published the findings without giving any credit to Ball, and renamed the technique the Dean Method, until Hollmann spoke out about this. He went on record saying, “After a great amount of experimental work, Miss Ball solved the problem for me…(this preparation is known as)….the Ball Method.”
The “Ball Method” continued to be the most effective method of treatment for Leprosy until the 1940s when a cure for the disease was found. Yet, as recent as 1999, a medical journal noted that the “Ball Method” was still being used to treat patients in remote areas. In 2000, the University of Hawaii acknowledged Alice as one of its most distinguished graduates after researchers, notably Stanley Ali and Kathryn Takara. They discovered in the archives the critical contribution Alice had made. Alice was honoured with a Chaulmoogra tree planted on the campus and the Governor of Hawaii declaring February 29th Alice Ball Day. She also received the University’s Medal of distinction.
Notes to Women is proud to celebrate and recognize Alice Ball whose research and ground-breaking scientific achievements went unnoticed by the University of Hawaii for almost a decade. We honour this remarkable young woman who departed from the world too soon. She left behind a legacy of hope for those who suffered from Leprosy by starting the fight against the disease and inspiring others to relentlessly hunt for more treatments until they found a cure.
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