Black Women in History: Alice Ball
Photo: Alice Augusta Ball
Alice Augusta Ball (July 24, 1892 – December 31, 1916) was an American chemist who developed the "Ball Method", the most effective treatment for leprosy during the early 20th century. She was the first woman and first African American to receive a master's degree from the University of Hawaii, and was also the university's first female and African American chemistry professor.
At the University of Hawaii, Ball investigated the chemical makeup and active principle of Piper methysticum (kava) for her master's thesis. Because of this work, she was contacted by Dr. Harry T. Hollmann at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii, who needed an assistant for his research into the treatment of leprosy.
At the time, leprosy or Hansen's Disease was a highly stigmatized disease with virtually no chance of recovery. People diagnosed with leprosy were exiled to the Hawaiian island of Molokai with the expectation that they would die there. The best treatment available was chaulmoogra oil, from the seeds of the Hydnocarpus wightianus tree from the Indian subcontinent, which had been used medicinally from as early as the 1300s. But the treatment was not very effective, and every method of application had problems. It was too sticky to be effectively used topically, and as an injection the oil's viscous consistency caused it to clump under the skin and form blisters rather than being absorbed. These blisters formed in perfect rows and made it look "as if the patient's skin had been replaced by bubble wrap". Ingesting the oil was not effective either because it had an acrid taste that usually made patients vomit it up.
At age 23, Ball developed a technique to make the oil injectable and absorbable by the body. Her technique involved isolating ester compounds from the oil and chemically modifying them, producing a substance that retained the oil's therapeutic properties and was absorbed by the body when injected. Unfortunately, due to her untimely death, Ball was unable to publish her revolutionary findings. Arthur L. Dean, a chemist and later the president of the University of Hawaii, stole her work, published the findings, and began producing large quantities of the injectable chaulmoogra extract. Dean published the findings without giving Ball credit and named the technique after himself. In 1920, a Hawaii physician reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that 78 patients had been discharged from Kalihi Hospital by the board of health examiners after treatment with injections of Ball's modified chaulmoogra oil. The isolated ethyl ester remained the preferred treatment for leprosy until sulfonamide drugs were developed in the 1940s.
It was not until years after her death that Hollmann attempted to correct this injustice. He published a paper in 1922 giving credit to Ball, calling the injectable form of the oil the "Ball method." Unfortunately, she still remained forgotten in the scientific record.
In the 1970s, Kathryn Takara and Stanley Ali, professors at the University of Hawaii, searched the archives to find Ball's research. After numerous decades they were able to bring her efforts and achievements to light, giving her the credit she earned.
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