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 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. She was one of four children, with two older brothers, William and Robert, and a younger sister, 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 to make use of daguerreotypy.
Alice Ball and her family moved from Seattle to Honolulu during Alice's childhood in hopes that the warm weather would relieve her grandfather's arthritis. He died shortly after the move and they relocated back to Seattle after only a year 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, "Benzoylations in Ether Solution", in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. This kind of accomplishment was very rare for women of any race.
After graduating, 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. Ball was also the first Black American and the first woman 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 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 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 Ball credit, and named the technique after himself until Ball's supervisor, 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 leprosy until sulfonamide drugs were developed in the 1940s.
Death and recognition
Ball died on December 31, 1916, at age 24. She had become ill during her research and returned to Seattle for treatment a few months before her death. A 1917 Pacific Commercial Advertiser article suggested that the cause may have been chlorine poisoning due to exposure 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, as World War I was raging in Europe. But the cause of her death is unknown, as her original death certificate was altered to cite tuberculosis.
In 1922 Ball was briefly mentioned in a medical journal, with her method being called the "Ball Method". In 2000, the University of Hawaii 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 the University Board of Regents honored Ball with a Medal of Distinction. In March 2016 Hawaiʻi Magazine placed Ball on its list of the most influential women in Hawaiian history. In 2018 a new park in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood was named after Ball. In 2019 the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine added her name to the frieze atop its main building, along with Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie, in recognition of their contributions to science and global health research.
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- UWSOP alumni legend Alice Ball, Class of 1914, solved leprosy therapy riddle
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