Alice Ball: Creating the world’s first cure for leprosy
Dr. Harry Hollmann
Writing about chemist Alice Ball and her groundbreaking cure for leprosy in a scientific journal
Ball’s portrait in the Fearless Portraits project consists of an Ink drawing on a map of Honolulu, HI. The University of Hawaii where she worked is visible on the bridge of her nose. Wearing a graduation cap and gown, the portrait is based on the only known photograph of Ball.
An ancient disease, leprosy (also known as Hansen’s Disease) has afflicted humans since biblical times. Viewed as a shameful curse, for most of history, leprosy was “treated” by throwing victims out of their homes and isolating them in leper colonies where they lived in poverty and pain as their disease progressed and complications eventually killed them. That is, until 1916, when a 23-year-old Alice Ball developed the first cure for the skin disease.
Born in 1892 in Seattle, Washington, Ball excelled in science and she earned bachelors’ degrees in chemistry and pharmacy at the University of Washington and went to what is now the University of Hawaii to pursue a master’s degree in chemistry. After graduating as the first black woman to earn a master’s degree at the school, she was invited to teach chemistry, becoming the first woman to teach there.
While teaching college chemistry, she was approached by Harry Hollman, a doctor treating leprosy patients. At his suggestion, she began researching the problem of using chaulmoogra oil as a treatment /
for leprosy. Chaulmoogra oil had been used to treat leprosy for hundreds of years, but it was difficult to administer to patients and not very effective. Ball was able to isolate the relevant compounds in the oil and developed a technique for injecting the oil. The results were very successful.
Sadly, she died a few months later before her findings could be published. A male colleague stole her research and named the discovery after himself. He received accolades from around the world for his stolen leprosy cure and later parlayed his success into the presidency of the university.
Hollman attempted to set the record straight six years later in 1922, writing in a scientific journal, “I interested Miss Alice Ball, M.S., an instructress in chemistry at the College of Hawaii in the chemical problem of obtaining for me the active agents in the oil of chaulmoogra. After a great amount of experimental work, Miss Ball solved the problem for me by making the ethyl esters of the fatty acids found in chaulmoogra oil, employing the technic herewith described,” which he referred to as “Ball’s Method.”
The Ball Method was far more efficacious than the previous topical and oral chaulmoogra oil therapies and thousands of leprosy patients around the world were successfully treated with it. The Ball Method remained the standard for leprosy treatment until the 1940s, when new classes of drugs were developed.
Ball became ill during her research and returned to Seattle for treatment. She died at the age of 24 on December 31, 1916. The cause of death is unknown, although it may have been due to chlorine gas exposure during a lab accident. Whatever the case, she wasn’t around to defend her work and despite Hollman’s 1922 article, Ball remained in obscurity for decades.
It was not until 2000, that the University of Hawaii recognized Ball with a plaque on campus, at the urging of scholars Dr. Kathryn Takara and Stan Ali. Around the corner from the plaque is the stately hall named for Ball’s research thief. Also in 2000, the Governor of Hawaii named February 29 “Alice Ball Day.” Other honors and accolades have since been bestowed on Ball.
This episode contains music by Geovane Bruno, Aleksandr Karabanov, and DayFox.
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