Alice Ball was an African American chemist who discovered the most effective treatment for leprosy during the 20th century. She accomplished this incredible medical breakthrough as a young woman of color in STEM during the Jim Crow era. However, Ball might have been merely a footnote in the annals of scientific history as she was uncredited for several decades for her work.
Alice Ball was born on July 24, 1892, in Seattle, Washington. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was a photographer. According to Biography.com, her grandfather, James P. Ball Sr., was a pioneer in daguerreotype photography. Ball’s interest in chemistry was credited to growing up around the compounds used to develop photos. During her childhood, her family briefly lived in Hawaii because they believed the warmer weather might help Ball Sr.’s health. After his death, they moved back to Seattle.
She excelled in school and obtained multiple graduate degrees from the University of Washington and the College of Hawaii (now known as the University of Hawaii). Ball was a brilliant young scientist, and she became the first woman and the first African American to receive a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii. In addition, at just 23 years old, she was the university’s first female chemistry professor.
How Alice Ball Developed a Leprosy Treatment
While working toward her master’s thesis at the University of Hawaii, Ball researched the active ingredients of kava root. Dr. Harry T. Hollmann at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii was impressed with Ball’s thesis and recruited her to help with his own research into the treatment of Hansen’s disease, commonly called leprosy, according to the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP).
Leprosy is an ancient disease with social stigmas due to a lack of understanding. The bacteria responsible for this infectious disease cause a range of defects, such as noticeable skin lesions or extreme disfigurements. During Ball’s lifetime, the disease was considered highly contagious and incurable, and people with the disease were often sent to live in isolated colonies. According to NSBP, leprosy patients were sent to the Hawaiian island of Molokai to spend the rest of their lives.
The best-known treatment included naturally derived chaulmoogra oil, but scientists couldn’t figure out how to effectively apply it. According to the University of Washington School of Pharmacy, the big challenge was that chaulmoogra oil was water-insoluble. As a topical, it was sticky and didn’t penetrate the skin. It also had such a bitter taste that patients usually threw up if they attempted to swallow it. If they tried to inject it under the skin, it was so viscous that it burned and bubbled up in visible rows of oil under the skin.
In 1915, using her expertise from extracting chemicals from the kava root, Ball figured out how to isolate chaulmoogra oil’s ester compounds and chemically modify them to make a less viscous compound that the human body could absorb. Her method was successful, and it enabled 78 leprosy patients to leave the hospital quarantine and reunite with their families, according to Mic. Her method was used to develop therapies to treat leprosy patients until new advancements in the 1940s.
Tragically, Ball died a year later, when she was only 24 years old. Mic reports that she died after accidentally inhaling chlorine gas during a demonstration in class.
Arthur Dean, the College of Hawaii president, initially took credit for Alice Ball’s innovative leprosy treatment. He even published her findings on extracting the active ingredient in chaulmoogra oils and called it the “Dean Method.”
Ball left her mark on history despite dying tragically young and living in a society that discouraged women of color in STEM fields. In 1922, Ball’s fellow researcher and former boss Dr. Hollman published an article describing “Ball’s Method,” which gave her proper credit for the achievement. Despite this attempt at correcting history, Ball’s work remained largely unrecognized until 1977, when historians discovered her story in the University of Hawaii’s archives. In 2000, Hawaii declared February 29 as Alice Ball Day.