Alice Ball – Treating Leprosy

Alice Ball

“It cannot be denied that our people, through force of circumstance, occupy a peculiar status in this country. We are not thoroughly known,” – James P. Ball Jr., Father of Alice Ball, The Colored Citizen.

 

Profile.

Alice_Ball_UW
Image of Alice Ball from the UW Tyee Yearbook. Source: https://sop.washington.edu/uwsop-alumni-legend-alice-ball-class-of-1914-solved-leprosy-riddle/

Name: Alice Augusta Ball

Life: 24/07/1892 – 31/12/1916 (24 years)

Born: Seattle, Washington, United States of America

Died: Seattle, Washington, United States of America

Occupation: Chemistry Professor

[1][2]

Who was Alice Ball?

Alice Ball was both the first woman and African American to receive a Master’s degree from the University of Hawaii (UoH). Following this she became the first female Chemistry professor at the university. [2]

During her short life she created the most effective treatment for Leprosy, an injectable oil extract that remained in use for over 20 years, until in 1940 when a new drug was introduced. (Today Leprosy is completely curable via a course of drug treatments). [5] However due to her death at such a young age she did not get the chance to publish her findings resulting in credit for her work being stolen by racist Arthur L. Dean, the college president. This lead to the treatment being commonly known as the “Dean’s method” for over 70 years. [3][4]

Life.

Alice Ball was one of the four children born to her lawyer/newspaper editor father and photographer mother. She lived with her parents and siblings, two older brothers and a younger sister, in Seattle, Washington.

Growing up seeing many of the photographers in her family develop photos (a skill not many, least of all African Americans would possess) Alice gained a keen interest in Chemistry from a very young age. She would go on to get a degree in both pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy from the University of Washington.

For her graduate studies she went to the University of Hawaii, the subject of her thesis hinting towards her drive to help those suffering from illness: identifying the active components of another plant, the kava root. Upon completion this cemented Alice as the first African American and first woman to receive a Masters from the university.

Career.

At age 23 Alice was offered a teaching and research position at UoH, which she accepted. This would make her the first woman and first African American to become a chemistry instructor in University of Hawaii history. [2]

Alice’s work focused on a serious skin condition identified in 1873 – Leprosy. Caused by a bacterial infection, symptoms of Leprosy can range from small skin lesions to massive disfigurements, and in extreme cases can result in death. Primarily it was treated with Chaulmoogra oil, an oil derived from the seeds of an evergreen tree, however it was a woefully inefficient treatment as when taken orally it cause nausea and when taken intravenously or topically it caused abscesses under the skin. In addition to this it was extremely unreliable, with patients experiencing improvements generally, but individual results being inconsistent. [3]

This was the motivation behind Alice’s Master’s thesis, as she needed to identify the active ingredient in the oil such that it could be injected directly without the side effects. [3]

Put, simply she succeeded! Once identified the new and improved treatment was called Ball’s Method. It resulted in a massively effective treatment that was used on thousands across the globe for over 20 years as the primary treatment to alleviate the symptoms of Leprosy. [2][3]

Death + Work being stolen.

On 31st December 1916, just one year after her major breakthrough, Alice Ball’s Life was cut tragically short at the age of 24. [1] She died of complications resulting from chlorine inhalation in a lab teaching experiment gone wrong, and this would lead to her never seeing the full impact of her discovery over the next 19 years. [1][2]

Furthermore the head of the university at the time – Arthur Deanwas massively racist and literally stole her work before it was used outside of Hawaii. For over 70 years it was credited as Dean’s Method even when colleague Dr. Harry T. Hollmann published a paper giving the late Ball the credit she deserved.

Long overdue recognition.

It has only been within the last 20 years that Ball has received her long overdue recognition. UoH put up a plaque honouring her, February 29 is officially recognised as Alice Ball day in Hawaii (even though that’s only once every four years), and in 2007 she was posthumously awarded with the Regents’ Medal of Distinction. [1][2][3][4]

Additionally a park has been named in her honour after campaigns by a nine year old, passionate chemist in the making, was successful. See more about it here: [Link1] [Link2] [Link3]

Finally in honour of Alice Ball scholar Paul Wermager established the Alice Augusta Ball endowed scholarship (which began in 2017) to support students in the college of Natural Science pursuing a degree in Chemistry, Biology or microbiology at UoH. [2][6]

Despite his despicable activities, it appears that Arthur L. Dean did not have to face the consequences of his racist actions as many sources still refer to Alice’s work as “Dean’s Method”. This once again reiterates the need for scientists to take a critical look at the origin of the science we teach and use today in STEM, as without doing so many racists receive praises and awards for work they did not complete, frequently leaving the actual academic destitute (see our post on HeLa cells). It also reiterates the common, immoral theme present in all of stem: if the results are good (i.e a cure for an illness etc…) then the means used to achieve it do not matter. Nothing less than equality, diversity and a love for the field should drive research.

References:

References are categorised by the following types:

🗒️ = Written 

🎧 = Audio

💻 = Video

[1]🗒️ – Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Ball

[2]🗒️ – Biography.com – https://www.biography.com/people/alice-ball

[3]🗒️ – National Geographic Article – https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/02/alice-ball-leprosy-hansens-disease-hawaii-womens-history-science/

[4]🗒️ – Medium Article – https://medium.com/s/the-matilda-effect/alice-ball-matilda-effect-6b5fb64c74d6

[5]🗒️ – Leprosy Wikipedia article. Contains graphic photo of effects of Leprosy –https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leprosy

[6]🗒️ – North West Hawai’i Times (September 2007) – http://www.northwesthawaiitimes.com/hnsept07.htm

Authors Note: Unfortunately due to how brief her life was Alice’s genius was restricted to this one, excellent discovery. We can only imagine what wonderful work she would have been able to complete had she lived.

For more information on POC scientists please visit our resources page or read through the rest of our blog. We are constantly updating both.

Written by Karel Green. For more information see the about page or follow her on twitter @thisismeonline.

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