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Alice Augusta Ball (July 24, 1892 – December 31, 1916) was an African American chemist who developed an injectable oil extract that was the most effective treatment for leprosy until the 1940s.[1] She was the first woman and first African American to receive a master's degree from the University of Hawaii, she was also the first female chemistry professor at the university.[2]

Alice Augusta Ball
Alicia Augusta Ball.jpg
Born (1892-07-24)July 24, 1892
Seattle, Washington
Died December 31, 1916(1916-12-31) (aged 24)
Seattle, Washington
Citizenship American
Alma mater University of Hawaii
University of Washington
Known for Treatment of leprosy
Scientific career
Fields Chemistry


Early life and educationEdit

Alice Augusta Ball was born on July 24, 1892 in Seattle, Washington to James Presley and Laura Louise (Howard) Ball.[3] Ball was one of four children. She had two older brothers, William and Robert, along with a younger sister named Addie.[4] Her family was considered middle class to upper-middle class, as Ball's father was a newspaper editor, photographer, and a lawyer.[3] Her grandfather, James Ball Sr., was a famous photographer, and was one of the first African Americans in the United States to learn to daguerreotype, which is a process of printing photographs onto metal plates.[5][6]

Alice Ball and her family moved from Seattle to Honolulu during Alice's childhood in hopes that the warm weather would help with her grandfather's, James Ball Sr.'s, arthritis. He died shortly after their move and they relocated back to Seattle after only a year of living in Hawaii.[7] After returning to Seattle, Ball attended Seattle High School and received top grades in the sciences. She graduated from Seattle High School in 1910.[4]

Ball studied chemistry at the University of Washington,[2][8], earning a bachelor's degree in pharmaceutical chemistry a second degree in pharmacy two years later.[4] With her pharmacy instructor, she published a 10-page article in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society titled "Benzoylations in Ether Solution." This kind of accomplishment was very rare for not only African American women, but women of any race.[5]

Following her graduation, Ball was offered many scholarships. She had offers to attend both the University of California Berkeley and the University of Hawaii.[9] She decided to move back to Hawaii to pursue a master's degree in chemistry. While at the University of Hawaii, she studied chaulmoogra oil and its chemical properties. While chaulmoogra oil had previously been used as a treatment for leprosy, Alice Ball revolutionized it and made it injectable by discovering the ester ethyl, a water-soluble form able to dissolve in the bloodstream. In 1915, she became the first woman and first African American to graduate with a master's degree from the University of Hawaii.[1] Alice Ball was also the first African American and woman chemistry professor in the University of Hawaii's chemistry department.[10]


In her postgraduate research career at the University of Hawaii, Ball investigated the chemical makeup and active principle of Piper methysticum (kava) for her master's thesis.[11] From 1866 to 1942, whenever a patient was diagnosed with leprosy they were arrested and sent to the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Dr. Harry T. Hollmann was a doctor during the time at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii. He was one of the few physicians who was not satisfied with the inconsistent results of the Chaulmoogra oil in its natural form.[7] He needed an assistant to help develop a method to isolate the active chemical compounds in chaulmoogra oil and reached out to Alice Ball who was working on her thesis The Chemical Constituents of Piper Methysticum.[9]

Chaulmoogra oil had previously been used in the treatment of Hansen's disease (leprosy) with mixed results and every form of the treatment had problems. Chaulmoogra oil was first used as a topical straight from the tree in eastern medicine as early as the 1300s. However, it was too sticky to be used effectively as a topical and extremely painful to be used as an injection. However, some hospitals still attempted to use it as an injection even though the sticky consistency of the oil caused it to clump under the skin and form blisters. These blisters formed in perfect rows and made it "look as if the patient's skin had been replaced by bubble wrap."[12] Ingesting the oil was not effective either because it had an acrid taste that usually made the patients vomit upon attempting to swallow it.[7]

At the young age of 23, Ball developed a technique that would allow the oil from chaulmoogra tree seeds to become injectable and absorbable by the body. Her newly developed technique involved isolating ethyl ester compounds from the fatty acids of the chaulmoogra oil.[13] This isolation technique, known as the "Ball Method", was the only treatment for Hansen's disease that was effective and "left no abscesses or bitter taste,".[7] Unfortunately, due to her untimely death, Alice was unable to publish her revolutionary findings.[14] Arthur L. Dean, a chemist and the president of the University of Hawaii, continued her work, published the findings, and began producing large quantities of the injectable chaulmoogra extract.[5] Dean published the findings without giving credit to Ball, and renamed the technique the Dean Method, until Hollmann spoke out about this.[15] In 1918, a Hawaii physician reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that a total of 78 patients were released from Kalihi Hospital by the board of health examiners after treatment with injections.[5][11] The isolated ethyl ester remained the preferred treatment for Hansen's disease until sulfonamide drugs were developed in the 1940s.[5]

Death and legacyEdit

Alice Augusta Ball died on December 31, 1916, at the age of 24. She had become ill during her research and returned to Seattle for treatment a few months before her death.[1] A 1917 newspaper article from the Pacific Commercial Advertiser suggested that the cause may have been chlorine poisoning due to exposure that occurred while teaching in the laboratory.[9] It was reported that Ball was giving a demonstration on how to properly use a gas mask in preparation for an attack since World War I was raging in Europe.[16] However, the cause of her death is unknown as her original death certificate was altered, giving the cause of death as tuberculosis.[3]

Alice Ball's work directly impacted the eight thousand people who were diagnosed with leprosy and taken out of their homes. Because of her, research patients were no longer exiled to Kalaupapa, Molokai; instead they were able to be treated out of their own homes.[7] Families no longer had to hold funerals for their loved ones before they were exiled because there was no cure, and they had Alice Ball to thank for this.[7]

Although her research career was short, Ball introduced a new treatment for Hansen's disease which continued to be used until the 1940s.[5] The University of Hawaii did not recognize her work for nearly ninety years. In 2000, the university finally honored Ball by dedicating a plaque to her on the school's lone chaulmoogra tree behind Bachman Hall.[9] On the same day, the former Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii, Mazie Hirono, declared February 29 "Alice Ball Day," which is now celebrated every four years.[2][15] In 2007, Ball was honored by the University of Hawaii Board of Regents with a Medal of Distinction and a plaque in her honor mounted on the only chaulmoogra tree on the campus.[2] In March 2016, Hawaiʻi Magazine ranked Ball in a list of the most influential women in Hawaiian history.[17]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Jackson, Miles. "Ball, Alice Augusta". Black Past. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d Brown, Jeannette (2012). African American Women Chemists. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 19–24. ISBN 978-0-19-974288-2.
  3. ^ a b c Jackson, Miles (2004). "African Americans in Hawai'i". Social Process in Hawai'i. 43: 168–174. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  4. ^ a b c Collins, Sibrina Nichelle (12 May 2016). "Alice Augusta Ball". Undark.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Wermager, Paul; Carl Heltzel (February 2007). "Alice A. Augusta Ball" (PDF). ChemMatters. 25 (1): 16–19. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-07-13. Retrieved 18 June 2014.
  6. ^ "What is a daguerreotype?". Daguerreobase. Retrieved December 3, 2017.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Swaby, Rachel (2015). Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - and the World. New York: Broadway Books. pp. 11–13. ISBN 9780553446791.
  8. ^ Guttman, D. Molentia; Ernest Golden (2011). African Americans in Hawaii. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-7385-8116-3. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  9. ^ a b c d Mendheim, Beverly (September 2007). "Lost and Found: Alice Augusta Ball, an Extraordinary Woman of Hawai'i Nei". Northwest Hawaii Times. Retrieved 17 May 2013.
  10. ^ "Ball, Alice Augusta". Scholar Space. Retrieved November 20, 2017.
  11. ^ a b University of Hawaii at Manoa. "Ball, Alice Augusta". Scholar Space. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  12. ^ Inglis-Arkell, Esther (8 May 2015). "We Had A Cure For Leprosy For Centuries, But Couldn't Get It To Work". io9. Retrieved 20 November 2017.
  13. ^ Ignotofsky, Rachel (2016). "Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World" Ten Speed Press: pp.45
  14. ^ Maggs, Sam (2016). "Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History." Quirk Books: pp. 36-39.
  15. ^ a b Cederlind, Erika (29 February 2008). "A tribute to Alice Bell: a Scientist whose Work with Leprosy was Overshadowed by a White Successor". The Daily of the University of Washington. Archived from the original on 2014-08-06. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  16. ^ UWSOP alumni legend Alice Ball, Class of 1914, solved leprosy therapy riddle
  17. ^ Dekneef, Matthew (March 9, 2016). "14 extraordinary women in Hawaii history everyone should know". Hawaiʻi Magazine. Honolulu. Retrieved March 9, 2016.

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