Dr. Alice Ball

Buckle in folks, this week’s Black Female Scientist has a doozy of a legacy.

Alice Augusta Ball was born to a family of pioneers in Seattle, WA in 1892.  Her grandfather was an abolitionist, who later in life became well-known for his photography (still looking for these images, I’ll include a link when I find them).  Her father was a lawyer and editor of the Colored Citizen newspaper, and her mother was a well-regarded photographer of Black leaders at the time.  Alice became fascinated with the chemicals involved in developing film at an early age, went on to excel in math and science in primary school, and earn two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Washington: one in pharmaceutical chemistry, and the other in pharmacy.  Alice Ball then accepted a full scholarship to the University of Hawaii to pursue her degree in chemistry.  By 1915, she was the first woman and the first African-American to graduate with a master’s degree from this University.  In the 1914-1915 academic year she also became the first woman to teach chemistry at the institution.  Not to mention, she was a pioneer in the STEM field 130 years ago.

To set the scene, racial discrimination was legal, violent, and ubiquitous in the early 20th century.  Race riots were ongoing, segregation (schools, workplaces, public parks, train cars, water fountains etc…) was enforced, and interracial marriage was illegal.  When Alice started her master’s degree in 1910, 84% of Black female professionals in Seattle worked as domestic servants.

While she was working on her master’s degree at the University of Hawaii, Alice Ball was approached by Harry T. Hollman, a U.S. public health officer and surgeon at the nearby Kalihi Hospital.  Dr. Hollmann was seeking a more effective treatment for the symptoms of Hansen’s disease, better known as leprosy.  Alice’s reputation proceeded her, and she was asked to take on a part-time position at the hospital to aid in this endeavor.  She began researching the properties of chaulmoogra oil, the long-believed “cure” for leprosy, made from seeds of the chaulmoogra tree.  Chaulmoogra extract had been used to treat leprosy symptoms for centuries, but was only available in the form of an oil.  The active ingredients (chaulmoogric acid and hydnocarpic acid) are insoluble in water, and could not be absorbed properly by the human body.  The oil was ineffective when applied topically, and could not be ingested.  Leper “asylums” injected the oil under the skin of their patients, but the treatment was horribly painful and would cause the skin to blister, leach oil, and become infected.  After only a year of research, 23-year old Alice Ball discovered a way to make this treatment injectable, so it could circulate through the body.

Before she could publish her findings, Alice fell ill after accidentally inhaling chlorine gas during a lab demonstration of gas masks.  Despite seeking the best treatment Seattle had to offer, she died only a few months later at the age of 24.  As if that isn’t tragic enough, her death certificate was altered to protect the University of Hawaii, and listed tuberculosis as the cause of her death.  Only months after her death, University of Hawaii president Dr. Arthur Dean began reproducing the injectable oil in mass quantities. He coined her discovery of the ethyl ester isolation process as “Dean’s Method”, and is still referenced as such. Dean took credit for this discovery through widespread publication in the scientific community.  In the decades to come, he received accolades and recognition, had buildings built in his name, and was never accused of plagiarism.   The work and legacy of Dr. Alice Augusta Ball remained buried for nearly a century until her archives were accidentally unearthed in the University of Hawaii archives in 1997.

Alice Ball’s injectable treatment remained the primary treatment for leprosy for three decades, until the invention of sulfone drugs in the 1940’s.  Her work saved hundreds of lives, and the “BALL Method” is still used today in the development of vaccines.  Hawaii now recognizes February 29th as Alice Ball Day”, which I guess is also a silver lining–although it seems shady that it’s on leap day.  What a figure of inspiration, she is now my background image.  Thank you Dr. Ball!








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