Who To Expect When Expecting Alice Ball

In her short life, Alice Augusta Ball, a chemist, was nothing short of brilliant. Alice was born in Seattle in 1892 and spent her childhood in Washington and Hawaii. She showed high aptitude towards the sciences, so much so that she ended up becoming the first African-American woman to attend the University of Washington School of Pharmacy [1]. In 1912, she earned a degree in pharmaceutical chemistry and in 1914, she earned a degree in pharmacy. After the University of Washington, she attended the University of Hawaii in 1914. In 1915, Alice became the first woman and the first African-American to graduate from the University of Hawaii with a Masters of Science degree in chemistry [2]. She was also the first woman to teach at the university as well [2].

While working on her postgraduate thesis, Alice was approached by Dr. Harry Hollmann, a US Public Health Officer, who needed her help in isolating the main ingredient in chaulmoogra oil [3]. Discovered as a cure for leprosy by the people of China, chaulmoogra oil has been used with mixed results since the 1300s [4]. The oil was not suitable for human use because it was painful to inject, which was the only way to effectively use it in the oil state, and did not always work [4]. In less than a year, Alice was able to successfully isolate the main ingredient from the oil and make it water soluble [1]. This effectively created a much-improved treatment for leprosy that could be easily administered to patients without the horrible effects of the previous oil injection. What people could not figure out over the span of 600 years, Alice figured it out in a year. Unfortunately, Alice died in 1916 at the age of 24 due to exposure to chlorine gas from working in her lab.

After her death, her work was finished by Arthur L. Dean, the president of the University of Hawaii [5]. Arthur published her work and began production of the chaulmoogra treatment for use on leprosy patients. Arthur did so without giving any credit to Alice and coined the cure as the Dean Method, completely ignoring the great contributions made by Alice [3]. Despite this callous appropriation of Alice’s work, Dr. Hollmann publicly spoke against Arthur Dean and revealed the true person behind the method: Alice Ball [3]. Eventually, it became the Ball Method. This method remained in use until the 1940s, when the sulfonamide drugs took over as the cure for leprosy [5].

In 2000, Alice Ball was recognized by the Governor of Hawaii and the University of Hawaii as a distinguished chemist and pioneer in her field [1]. With her brilliance and passion for chemistry and pharmacy, Ball would have continued to make great contributions to science if not for her unfortunate passing. She remains a beacon of hope and discovery, showcasing that science is not just about learning but also experiencing and helping others despite the uphill battles that some must fight.

Photo acquired from Wikipedia Commons

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