Alice Augusta Ball
|Died||December 31, 1916 (aged 24)|
|Alma mater||University of Hawaii|
University of Washington
|Known for||Treatment of leprosy|
Alice Augusta Ball (July 24, 1892 – December 31, 1916) was an African American chemist who developed an injectable herbal extract (ethyl hydnocarpate) that was 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 she was also the university's first female chemistry professor.
Early life and education
Alice Augusta Ball was born on July 24, 1892 in Seattle, Washington to James Presley and Laura Louise (Howard) Ball. Ball was one of four children. She had two older brothers, William and Robert, along with a younger sister named Addie. Her family was middle class and well off, as Ball's father was a newspaper editor, photographer, and lawyer. Her grandfather, James Ball Sr., was a famous photographer, and one of the first Black Americans in the United States to make use of the early photography method daguerreotypy.
Alice Ball and her family moved from Seattle to Honolulu during Alice's childhood in hopes that the warm weather would help with the arthritis symptoms of her grandfather, James Ball Sr. He died shortly after their move and they relocated back to Seattle after only a year of living in Hawaii. After returning to Seattle, Ball attended Seattle High School and achieved top grades in the sciences. She graduated from Seattle High School in 1910.
Ball then studied chemistry at the University of Washington, earning a bachelor's degree in pharmaceutical chemistry and a second degree in pharmacy two years later. With her pharmacy instructor, she published a 10-page article in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society titled "Benzoylations in Ether Solution." This kind of accomplishment was very rare for women of any race.
Following her graduation, Ball was offered many scholarships. She received an offer from the University of California Berkeley, as well as the University of Hawaii, where she decided to study for a master's degree in chemistry. At the University of Hawaii, she studied chaulmoogra oil and its chemical properties. Chaulmoogra oil was then the best treatment available for leprosy, and Ball developed a much more effective injectable form. In 1915, she became the first woman and first Black American to graduate with a master's degree from the University of Hawaii. Alice Ball was also the first Black American and the first woman chemistry professor in the University of Hawaii's chemistry department.
Treatment for leprosy
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 stigmatised 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. However, the treatment was not very effective, and every method of application was associated with problems. It was too sticky to be used effectively as a topical and as an injection the viscous consistency of the oil 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 the patients vomit upon attempting to swallow it.
At the young age of 23, Ball developed a technique that would make the oil injectable and absorbable by the body. Her technique involved isolating ester compounds from the oil and chemically modifying them, resulting in 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 the president of the University of Hawaii, continued her work, published the findings, and began producing large quantities of the injectable chaulmoogra extract. Dean published the findings without giving credit to Ball, and named the technique after himself, until Ball's supervisor Dr Hollmann spoke out about this.
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 Hansen's disease until sulfonamide drugs were developed in the 1940s.
Death and recognition
Alice Augusta Ball died on December 31, 1916, at the age of 24. She had become ill during her research and returned to Seattle for treatment a few months before her death. A 1917 newspaper article from the Pacific Commercial Advertiser suggested that the cause may have been chlorine poisoning due to exposure that occurred while teaching in the laboratory. It was reported that Ball was giving a demonstration on how to properly use a gas mask in preparation for an attack since World War I was raging in Europe. However, the cause of her death is unknown as her original death certificate was altered, giving the cause of death as tuberculosis.
The University of Hawaii did not recognize her work for nearly ninety years, but in 2000, the university finally honored Ball by dedicating a plaque to her on the school's chaulmoogra tree behind Bachman Hall. On the same day, the former Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii, Mazie Hirono, declared February 29 "Alice Ball Day," which is now celebrated every four years. In 2007, Ball was honored by the University of Hawaii Board of Regents with a Medal of Distinction. In March 2016, Hawaiʻi Magazine ranked Ball in a list of the most influential women in Hawaiian history.
- List of African-American inventors and scientists
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- UWSOP alumni legend Alice Ball, Class of 1914, solved leprosy therapy riddle
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