Leprosy treatment today would not be the same without Alice Ball.
Once overlooked, Alice Ball is now a celebrated African-American scientist across Hawaii, her place of study, and beyond. Crucial to modern day leprosy treatment, her work is her legacy, having improved the lives of innumerable leprosy sufferers.
The inventor Alice Ball was overlooked in her own lifetime. She was an accomplished chemist, and the first woman of colour to graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii, but for many years another scientist claimed her glory.
Although she died at just 24 years old, her work changed the lives of sufferers of leprosy and the treatment she developed remained the first-choice form of management for the long-term degenerative condition until the 1940s. Her breakthrough was to isolate the active compound in an effective but side-effect laden existing treatment. This reduced symptoms and significantly improve the quality of life for huge numbers of people.
She was equipped for this challenge thanks to her bachelor’s degrees in both pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy from the University of Washington. After four years of study, her first published article set the stage for her innovative approach and featured in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society. This was an impressive achievement for a young woman with African American origins who was barely into her early 20s.
However, it is hardly a surprise. Bell came from a successful and well-respected background. She was born in Seattle, Washington in 1892, to a family headed up by her newspaper editor and lawyer grandfather. James Ball Senior was an influential man who had also cut new ground in his chosen profession. He is remembered as among the first African Americans to learn to master emerging photograph technology, or daguerreotype.
The family came to Hawaii for her grandfather’s work in 1903 and, despite a brief return to Seattle, Ball chose the island’s university for her graduate studies. This wasn’t a straight-forward choice for her – several credible schools of learning hotly contested her attendance. She entered the chemistry programme and so her path as a change-maker was set.
The medicine usually used to treat leprosy at the turn of the century was chaulmoogra oil, but patients were loath to take it because of its bitter taste and effects on the stomach. During her graduate studies, Ball found a way to isolate the medicinal parts and avoid the ill-effects. Sadly, she never saw her own success as she died young from what was reported to be tuberculosis.
After this sad loss, the university’s president, Arthur L. Dean, published her findings, and clinical trials of her process proved highly successful. To his eternal discredit, he gave Ball no recognition for her insight and the technique was practised under his name for many years. It took Ball’s early collaborator and prominent Hawaiian surgeon, Harry T. Hollmann, to speak up for her before her contribution was properly credited.
Today her legacy is secure. A plaque in her honour sits beneath the university’s chaulmoogra tree and the island of Hawaii celebrates Alice Ball Day every February 29. She rightfully sits as one of the most influential women in Hawaiian history and an important and fondly-remembered innovator among the African American community.