Alice Augusta Ball, in 1916, succeeded in discovering an effective treatment for Leprosy that had stumped medical science for thousands of years. She was a brilliant chemist and her work significantly improved the lives of leprosy patients around the world. Such an amazing achievement remained unknown years due to her untimely death in December of 1916. We are excited to introduce you to this amazing woman who was overlooked and almost forgotten for far too long.
The short but important life of Alice Augusta Ball.
Alice Augusta Ball was born in Seattle, Washington to Laura and James Ball Jr. on 24 July 1892, the third of 4 children. Her parents were solidly middle class. Her father worked as a lawyer, newspaper editor, and photographer. In fact, many of her family members were photographers, including her grandfather, James Presley Ball, Sr. James Ball, Sr. was one of the first African Americans producing daguerreotype photographs, one of the earliest forms of photography available to the public. The daguerreotype process inspired Ball’s initial interest in chemistry at a young age.
Ball attended the University of Washington for her undergraduate studies. There Ball earned a Bachelors in Pharmaceutical Chemistry in 1912 and a Bachelors in Pharmacy in 1914. After graduating, she went to Hawaii to study at the College of Hawaii. In 1915, she earned her Masters in Chemistry. This made her both the first African American and the first woman to earn a Masters in Chemistry. Because of her excellent work, she was offered both a research and teaching position at the college. She thus became her the college’s first female chemistry instructor. She was only 23.
What is Leprosy?
Also known as Hansen’s Disease, Leprosy is an ancient disease that dates back to at least 2000 BC. Recorded in the Indian Vedic scriptures, its existence is also backed with archaeological evidence. In 1873, Dr. Gerhard Armauer Henrik Hansen of Norway discovered that the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae, a bacillus (rod-shaped) bacterium, caused leprosy. It is called Hansen’s Disease after him.
Leprosy causes disfiguring skin lesions, skin discoloration, and nerve damage. It also affects the upper respiratory tract, including the nasal mucosa (lining of the nose), and the eyes. Because people thought it was highly contagious, it frightened people. In fact, Leprosy isn’t easily spread. Most of the human population (95%) are resistant to the bacteria.
The way the disease was transmitted was not understood. Because it was considered highly contagious and had no effective cure, victims of the disease were quarantined. They were often required to live in isolated communities like the one in Hawaii. Without an effective treatment, the patients were essentially sent to leper colonies to die.
Alice Augusta Ball’s Master’s work led her to research the treatment for leprosy.
Ball’s master thesis involved isolating active components in the Keva root. This drew the attention of Dr. Harry T. Hollman, a surgeon who worked with a leper colony in the area. He recruited Ball to find a cure for leprosy. The only known treatment for it was oil from the Chaulmoogra tree, found in South East Asia, but it wasn’t effective. The oil sometimes helped as a topical but swallowing it made the patients throw up. When injected under the skin, the thick oil was painful and it didn’t absorb well. Dr. Hollman wanted Ball to work with the oil to find a more effective option.
In less than a year, Ball isolated the therapeutic compounds in Chaulmoogra oil, now known as antimicrobial hydnocarpic acid. She managed to derive them in a water soluble form, which meant that they could be injected and easily absorbed into the bloodstream. The treatment was a huge success. Unlike the earlier, raw oil treatments, this form had minimal side effects and was reliable for treating the disease.
Once it went into production, it was distributed all over the world. It was the most effective treatment for Leprosy until the 1940s, when new medications became available. It is still used in parts of the world today. This extremely successful treatment allowed the release of leprosy patients from hospitals and colonies to return home to their families. According to James P. Harnisch, who works at the Hansen’s Disease Clinic at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Washington and specializes in infectious disease and dermatology:
“Ball’s discovery was very beneficial to alleviating the pain that was sustained by patients…. And for a black woman to be able to achieve what she did and make advances in that area during that time is remarkable unto itself.”
Unfortunately, Alice Augusta Ball did not benefit from her research and astounding discovery.
The same year she isolated the treatment for Leprosy, she got chlorine poisoning while teaching. At the time, fume hoods were not mandatory in laboratories. She returned to Seattle for treatment and died on 31 December, 1916. She was only 24 years old.
Dr. Arthur L. Dean, the chemist serving as the college president, took over Ball’s work but did not give her credit. Instead, he claimed the research for himself and called the technique for isolating the therapeutic compounds the “Dean Method.”
We might never have had the record set straight except for Dr. Hollman. 1922, he wrote a journal article on using the fatty acids Ball isolated from Chaulmoogra oil to treat leprosy and other ailments, including tuberculosis. He detailed the work she put into developing this treatment and called it the “Ball Method” Even so, it wasn’t until 2000 that the University of Hawaii recognized her important contributions to medicine.
Today, Alice Augusta Ball is recognized for her work in a number of ways:
- 2000: The University of Hawaii dedicated a plaque placed beneath the only chaulmoogra tree on the campus to Ball.
- 2000: Lt. Governor Mazie Hirono of Hawaii declared the 29th of February Alice Ball Day.
- 2007: the University of Hawaii posthumously gave her their Medal of Distinction.
- 2017: Paul Wermager, a scholar dedicated to studying, writing about, and lecturing on Ball’s work created the Alice Augusta Ball Scholarship for the University of Hawaii. This scholarship is for students majoring in chemistry, biochemistry, biology, or microbiology who “typify the characteristics that Ball displayed in her studies and research.”