July 24, 1892 – December 31, 1916
Alice Augusta Ball was born in Seattle, Washington, the third of her parents’ four children. Ball and her siblings had a comfortable middle-class upbringing due to their parents Laura and James P. Ball, Jr. working respectively as a photographer and lawyer. Ball’s grandfather, James P. Ball, Sr., was a famous photographer due to being one of the first Black Americans to master the daguerreotype process. It’s believed that with a mother and grandfather who were both professional photographers, Ball was exposed to the chemical process of photography as a child which sparked her interest in chemistry.
When Ball was 11 her family moved to Hawaii in hopes that the warm weather would provide some relief for her grandfather’s arthritis. Unfortunately, he became gravely ill soon after their arrival and passed away which prompted another move, this time back to Seattle. Ball became a student at Seattle High School where she excelled and graduated with high grades.
After graduation, Ball enrolled in pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy programs at the University of Washington from which she received degrees in 1912 and 1914. For graduate school, she enrolled in the chemistry master’s program at what is now the University of Hawaii and completed her degree the following year. This accomplishment made her the university’s first woman and first Black person to graduate with a master’s degree in chemistry and she later also became its first female chemistry teacher.
In addition to being offered a teaching position, Ball was also allowed to use the university’s facilities to conduct research. Ball’s undergraduate research paper, “Benzoylations in Ether Solution”, had been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. This had resulted in her receiving a full scholarship to attend the University of Hawaii. Ball’s master’s thesis focused on her research into extracting ingredients from the kava plant. This work brought her to the attention of Hawaii’s public health officer, Dr. Harry T. Hollmann. Leading a leprosy clinic, Holmann was searching for a method to successfully treat the disease.
Leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) is a centuries-old illness caused by the bacteria, mycobacterium leprae. The illness varies in severity and can take anywhere from 1 to 20+ years to show symptoms that affect various parts of the body. Left untreated the bacteria may attack and damage nerves causing them to swell beneath the skin resulting in paralysis or a loss of sensation which can cause individuals to seriously injure themselves. Over time an affected person may become blind due to optical ulcers and the body may become deformed as digits are reabsorbed and the nose bridge collapses.
At the time, there was no reliable cure for leprosy and given the physical symptoms of the disease, people with leprosy were quarantined and often ostracized. In China and India, chaulmoogra oil had been used as a folk medicine to treat leprosy but it was difficult to administer as it tasted terrible and burned and caused blisters when injected beneath the skin. Holmann hoped that Ball might be able to devise a method for isolating chaulmoogra’s active ingredient and making it water-soluble.
Building on aspects of her previous research into ethers and ingredient extraction, Ball developed a method for extracting oil from the chaulmoogra tree’s seeds. The oil’s fatty acid components were separated using a process that came to be known as “The Ball Method”. This reduced the thickness and stickiness of the oil allowing the active ingredient to be injected and absorbed by the body without the discomfort or side effects of the traditional ointment.
The Ball Method was a highly effective treatment for leprosy and remained in use until other medications were introduced 30 years later. Patients who were once quarantined in leprosy facilities and colonies due to fears of transmission could now be treated and return home. Ball was still teaching while conducting research and inhaled chlorine gas during a class demonstration in the lab. The exposure made her very ill and required Ball to return to Seattle for treatment. Unfortunately, after having obtained several degrees and made a major medical discovery by the age of 23, Alice Ball died at 24 years old from her injuries.
Ball had discovered how to more effectively use chaulmoogra oil to treat leprosy but died before she was fully recognized for her research. She had conducted the research required to make the discovery but the president of the college, Dr. Arthur Dean, claimed Ball’s work as his own and referred to the process as “The Dean Method” despite only continuing her research. This sexist practice of research conducted and discoveries made by women being claimed and/or published under the names of men was a frequent occurrence.
Hollmann stepped in and attempted to right this wrong by publishing a paper in an attempt to properly credit Ball with the discovery. Yet, Ball’s contribution to medical and scientific research would remain lost to history for 50 years. In 1977, Dr. Kathryn Waddell Takara and Stanley Ali were going through the University of Hawaii’s archives as part of their research into the history of Black people in Hawaii. They found Ball’s records and played a major role in bringing attention to her research to get her contributions the recognition that they deserved.
- “Diagnosis and Treatment Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy).” 2017. CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 30, 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/leprosy/treatment/index.html.
- Jackson, Miles. 2007. “Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916).” Blackpast.org. September 20, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/people-african-american-history/ball-alice-augusta-1892-1916/.
- “UWSOP Alumni Legend Alice Ball, Class of 1914, Solved Leprosy Therapy Riddle.” 2021. University of Washington | School of Pharmacy. University of Washington. December 22, 2021. https://sop.washington.edu/uwsop-alumni-legend-alice-ball-class-of-1914-solved-leprosy-riddle/.
- “A Woman Who Changed the World.” 2017. University of Hawai’i Foundation. February 21, 2017. https://www.uhfoundation.org/impact/students/woman-who-changed-world.
- Worthen, Meredith. 2021. “Alice Ball.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. January 8, 2021. https://www.biography.com/scientist/alice-ball.
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