“Oil from the seed [of the chaulmoogra
tree (Hydnocarpus)] was used to relieve
symptoms of leprosy. Alice A. Ball—African-
American College of Hawai’i instructor,
research chemist, and the first woman to
receive a master’s degree from the College
of Hawai’i (Class of 1915)—extracted the
oil’s active ingredient in the 1910’s.”
Of you love science and equality but hate leprosy (and who doesn’t?), Alice Ball is 100 percent your kind of gal. As a young scientist, she not only overcame a hugely prejudiced environment to pursue an education, but she also achieved the kind of life-saving research breakthroughs that much older scientists would envy—and steal.
Before she rocked her research, Alice Ball was born in the late nineteenth century to a family of pioneers in Seattle, Washington. Her grandfather had been an abolitionist and one of the first African American men to learn how to create daguerreotypes (an early form of photography and notsomething that steampunk authors made up). Her father was a lawyer and editor of the Colored Citizen newspaper, and her mother was a well-regarded photographer of Black leaders. After becoming interested in the chemicals used to develop photographs (and acing all her high school classes), Alice attended the University of Washington to study science, earning not one but two bachelor’s degrees: in pharmaceutical chemistry and science. In 1914, as a twenty-two-year-old undergrad, Alice copublished an eleven-page article in the Journal of the American Chemical Societytitled “Benzoylations in Ether Solution,” which featured tons of smart-person observations, such as “Since the balance was sensitive to only 0.05mg it is evident that errors of weight alone account fully for the surprisingly small variations observed.” Ace!
All that work is impressive by anyone’s standards at any time in history, but we’re talking about the early 1900s, when racial discrimination was rampant (and legal) in much of the United States and only about 2,300 of Seattle’s 81,000 residents were Black. In 1910, the year Alice entered college, 84 percent of Black female professionals in Seattle worked as domestic servants. So it’s safe to say that she not only rocked at chemistry, but she did so in spite of what society thought she could do. Offered scholarships at both Berkeley and the University of Hawai’i, Alice chose the latter, having family history in the Pacific Islands. By 1915 she was the first woman and the first African American to graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Hawai’i, and she subsequently took a teaching position that made her the university’s first Black professor of chemistry.
While working on her thesis (on the chemical makeup of awa root, or kava, a sedative plant), Alice was approached by Harry T. Hollmann, an assistant surgeon and U.S. public health officer at nearby Kalihi Hospital. Hollmann was seeking a more effective treatment for Hansen’s disease (aka leprosy, an infection that causes debilitating and contagious skin lesions). Never one to back down from a challenge, Alice agreed to help and started researching the properties of an ingredient called chaulmoogra oil. In Indian and Chinese medicine, oil made from seeds of the chaulmoogra tree had long been used to treat skin diseases like leprosy and eczema. Unfortunately, the oil wasn’t super effective when applied topically, and it tasted too horrible for anyone to be willing to ingest it. Injections of the substance were painful, since its active ingredients (chaulmoogric acid and hydnocarpic acid) are insoluble in water (and thus in humans); unpleasant side effects further reduced the appeal of this treatment method. But chemistry wizard Alice fixed the problem: by isolating the ethyl esters of the fatty acids present in the oil, she made the treatment injectable. And she accomplished this amazing feat at the age of only twenty-three.
Before she was able to publish her results, Alice fell ill after accidentally inhaling chlorine gas during a lab demonstration of gas masks. After traveling to Seattle for treatment, she resumed teaching for a few months before dying on December 31, 1916, at age twenty-four, likely from aftereffects of the accident. (I say “likely” because her death certificate has since been altered to report tuberculosis as the cause of death, although a 1917 newspaper article reported that she died of chlorine poisoning.) Fortunately, Alice’s death was not in vain; her injectable treatment for Hansen’s disease would save seventy-eight patients at Kalihi Hospital and countless more across the world. It remained the primary treatment for leprosy for three decades, until the invention of sulfone drugs in the 1940s. And so, in honor of its inventor, Alice Ball, the ethyl ester isolation process was named…the Dean Method.
Yes, after Alice’s untimely death, University of Hawai’i president Dr. Arthur Dean began creating large quantities of the injectable oil for use in treatment, and then he went on to take all the credit for the therapy. But the method was completely Alice’s: according to University of Hawai’i professor Kathryn Takara: “[Ball] really did all the research. The Ball Method became [Dean’s] method.” To his credit, Dr. Hollmann did try to name Alice as the method’s inventor in a 1922 paper titled “The Fatty Acids of Chaulmoogra Oil in the Treatment of Leprosy and Other Diseases,” wherein he says of Dean’s Method: “I cannot see that there is any improvement over the original technic as worked out by Miss Ball.” Hollmann adds that Alice, “an instructress in chemistry,” was the one who “solved the problem,” and he calls the solution “Ball’s Method.” The media picked up on it, too. A brief 1925 article in the Honolulu Advertiser describes Ball as a “Hawai’ian Girl Heroine.”
Despite these valiant efforts, the University of Hawai’i and the rest of the world essentially forgot about Alice for a century. Then in 2000 the school attached a plaque inscribed with her name to the campus’s only chaulmoogra tree (aw!) and awarded her a medal of distinction. Hawai’i also now recognizes Alice Ball Day on February 29 (a date that gives you a nice four-year interval to plan a huge bash between celebrations). Today, two activist scholars are to be thanked for Alice’s restored legacy: Dr. Takara, who discovered her in the University of Hawai’i archives in 1977; and a federal retiree in Baltimore named Stan Ali, who accidentally found mention of “young Negro chemist, Alice Ball,” while reading Charles Dutton’s 1932 book on leprosy, The Samaritans of Molokai. Not only did Ali’s research into Alice’s history lead directly to her University of Hawai’i honors, but he also wants to rename the university’s Dean Hall in her honor (or at least get a lab named after her), given that Dean was so clearly “guilty of plagiarism.” After all the work that Alice did in her twenty-four short years, she clearly deserves it.