Women of Interest—Alice Ball

Alice Ball was a chemist who developed a treatment for leprosy involving the injection of chaulmoogra oil.  Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, who had been working with leprosy patients, sought out Ball when he discovered her thesis entitled “The Chemical Constituents of Piper Methysticum”.  Hollmann was working with chaulmoogra oil as a treatment for leprosy, and the results were not without problems.  The substance was too sticky to use as a topical treatment, very painful when used as an injectable, and even ingesting caused the patients to vomit from the bitter taste.  Through her research, Ball was able to develop a technique to transform chaulmoogra oil into a substance that could be injected and absorbed by the body.  This technique became known as “The Ball Method” and was the only successful treatment for leprosy.

Alice Ball was the first African American and the first woman to receive a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii.  Ball was born on July 24, 1892 in Seattle Washington.  The family moved to Hawaii hoping that the warm weather would help her grandfather’s arthritis; unfortunately he died shortly after the move.  Before relocating to Hawaii, Alice earned two bachelor degrees, one in pharmaceutical chemistry and the second one in pharmacy.  Upon graduation Ball was offered many scholarships and became the first black, female chemistry professor at the University of Hawaii.

Alice Ball died December 31, 1916, at the age of 24 and was unable to publish her findings under her name.  As a result, Arthur L. Dean, president of the University of Hawaii, who was also a chemist, continued with Ball’s work and published her findings, claiming her discovery for himself and renaming her technique the “Dean Method,” without giving Ball any credit.  At that time, it was common for men to take credit for women’s discoveries.  Six years after her death, Dr. Harry Hollmann, who encouraged Ball’s work, published a paper, giving Ball the credit she deserved for her discovery.  The cause of Ball’s untimely death was stated as unknown, although it is said that she inhaled chlorine gas while teaching a chemistry lab class.

Eight thousand leprosy patients benefited from the Alice Ball’s work, as they were now able to stay in their own homes and receive treatment.  Ball’s work was not recognized by the University of Hawaii for almost 90 years, but in 2000 a plaque was dedicated to her and hung on the only chaulmoogra tree on the university campus.  Also, February 29 was declared Alice Ball Day and is celebrated every four years.  In 2017, Paul Wermager, a professor at the University of Hawaii, who has extensively studied Alice Ball, made the following statement:

“Not only did she overcome the racial and gender barriers of her time to become one of the very few African-American women to earn a master’s degree in chemistry, [but she] also developed the first useful treatment for Hansen’s disease. Her amazing life was cut too short at the age of 24. Who knows what other marvelous work she could have accomplished had she lived.”

Additional information on the remarkable Alice Ball may be found at the following websites: