Black History:  Special Delivery!!

alice ball

Alice Ball (1892-1916)

 Alice Augusta Ball (1892 – 1916) was the first to develop an effective treatment to cure leprosy (Hansen’s Disease).  It was not until years after her death that she received the credit she deserved. Ball was born in Seattle, Washington.  Her mother Laura was a photographer and her father, James P. Ball, Jr. was a lawyer. She had 3 siblings, two older brothers, and one younger sister. The family lived comfortably and by today’s standards would have been considered middle class.  The family moved to Honolulu, Hawaii in 1903 hoping that the warmer climate would be better for her father’s arthritis.  James Ball, Sr. died shortly after the move and the family relocated back to Seattle.  Ball graduated from high school in 1910 and then attended college at the University of Washington and the College of Hawaii (University of Hawaii); earning a bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical chemistry in 1912 and a bachelors degree in pharmacy in 1914, both from the University of Washington.  She then transferred to the College of Hawaii and was the first African American as well as the first woman to graduate with an M.S. degree in chemistry in 1915.  Upon graduation, she was offered a teaching and research position, making her the first woman chemistry instructor at the College of Hawaii at the age of 23.

Her research focused on developing an effective treatment for leprosy (Hansen’s disease).  Ball created the first injectable medication to treat leprosy utilizing the oil of the chaulmoogra tree.  The oil had previously been used as a topical ointment but was not as effective in topical form.  Ball was able to successfully convert the oil into an injectable form which was highly successful.  It was later referred to as the “Ball Method” and was used to serve thousands of people for the next 30 years until sulfone drugs were developed.    Ball’s discovery made it possible for individuals with leprosy to leave hospitals and return to their families.  Ball’s life was cut short at the young age of twenty-four.  Her death resulted from an accident where she inhaled chlorine gas in her teaching lab.  After her death, the College of Hawaii continued her research but did not give her credit for her groundbreaking work.  Dr. Arthur Dean, president of the College of Hawaii, actually claimed her discovery as his own.  At that time it was common for men to take credit for the discoveries or inventions made by women.

Six years after her death, the assistant surgeon at Kalihi Hosptial, Dr. Harry T. Hollmann published a paper giving Ball credit for her discovery.  Even with this recognition, her work remained largely unacknowledged.  In 2000, the University of Hawaii recognized Ball’s accomplishments by placing a bronze plaque in front of a chaulmoogra tree on campus to honor Ball. February 29th is now also recognized as “Alice Ball Day” in Hawaii.  She was also awarded the Regents’ Medal of Distinction by the University of Hawaii posthumously.  Ball also has an endowed scholarship at the University of Hawaii named in her honor.