Alice Ball - A Stolen Cure

Casey Mazzotti

August 15, 2021

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Alice Ball, born in 1892 in Seattle, Washington, lived a short but impactful life; sadly, as is true of many women affected by the Matilda Effect, her legacy has only recently been appropriately recognized.

Early Life

Ball was the middle child in a family of six - she had two older brothers and a younger sister; her parents, James and Laura, worked as a lawyer and a photographer, respectively. James Ball Sr., her grandfather, was a well-known photographer - he was one of the first to practice the technique of daguerreotype photography, a method of printing photographs onto metal plates.

As her grandfather's arthritis worsened, the family moved to Honolulu in 1903, hoping that the warm weather would improve his condition. Unfortunately, he passed away only about a year into their move; the family ultimately relocated back to Seattle.

Achieving Big at a Young Age

Back in Seattle, Alice graduated from Seattle High School in 1910 and went on to earn undergraduate degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry in 1912 and pharmacy in 1914 from the University of Washington. While working towards her pharmacy degree, she, along with a professor of hers, published an article that appeared in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in October of 1914 - a feat for undergraduate students at any time.

Ball then moved back to Hawaii to attend the College of Hawaii, now the University of Hawaii. She studied and earned her Master's degree in Chemistry in 1915 - she was the first African American and the first woman to graduate with a Master's from the University of Hawaii. She was subsequently offered and accepted a teaching and research position there; she became the university's first female chemistry instructor - all of this, at just 23 years old.

Remarkable Research

At the time, fear surrounded a disease known as leprosy, or Hansen's disease, and patients diagnosed with it were often sent to quarantine in Hawaii. Patients were often treated with chaulmoogra oil - it was not particularly effective as a topical treatment; it induced vomiting when taken orally, and when injected, it could coagulate and form lumps or boils underneath the skin, which could be very painful for patients.

A local doctor, Dr. Harry T. Hollman, was working at Kalihi Hospital and was treating patients with leprosy. Dr. Hollman was dissatisfied with the current treatment options, and he enlisted the help of Ball, whose work he was familiar with, to develop a better means of treatment.

Ball developed a technique, known as “the Ball Method”, in which she was able to isolate the fatty acids of the oil and manipulate them; her process made the oil water-soluble - meaning it could be injected into patients and would dissolve in their bloodstream. After being implemented, it was the primary means of treatment used in leprosy until the 1940s.

Unfortunately, Alice Ball became ill, reportedly after inhaling chlorine in a lab accident; she moved home to Seattle and died in 1916, at the age of 24, before she was able to publish her findings.

The Matilda Effect

Following her death, chemist and president of the university, Arthur L. Dean, continued on with her work and published her findings as his own - he did not credit her upon publication of the work. He even went so far as to name the method “the Dean Method”.

It wasn't until 1922 that Dr. Hollman published a paper giving Ball the credit she deserved. Even then, she was largely left out of the conversation of scientific and medical history and has only recently been acknowledged as the powerhouse contributor and thinker that she was.

In 2000, the University of Hawaii finally recognized Ball for her work by placing a plaque on the school's only chaulmoogra tree. The former Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii declared February 29 “Alice Ball” day. In 2007, she was honored posthumously with the Regents' Medal of Distinction by the University of Hawaii and in 2016, Hawaii Magazine ranked her in a list of the most influential women of Hawaiian history. Most recently, in 2017, a researcher, Paul Wermager, who has consistently lectured about Ball at the University of Hawaii-M?noa, established The Alice Augusta Ball endowed scholarship which supports students seeking degrees in chemistry, biology, or microbiology at the university.

Because of Alice Ball's work, patients with leprosy were able to be treated from their homes and were no longer sent away to quarantine and die far from their loved ones. In the 1940s, a separate class of drugs was brought to the market, which became the primary treatment for leprosy, and in 2000, the World Health Organization declared that leprosy had been eliminated as a global public health problem - they cited one of the reasons as the effective multi-drug treatments.

Alice Ball was a phenomenal contributor to our society, and to the world - she lived a life that was cut short; we can only imagine what else she may have created or discovered with the remainder of her lifetime. Now, her legacy has been recognized and hopefully remains; we have her to thank for streamlining a treatment for leprosy, and her legacy continues to inspire young and aspiring scientists today.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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