Happy Birthday Blog: Alice Ball

Happy Birthday Blog: Alice Ball

Alice Ball

Born: July 24, 1892

Seattle, Washington, USA

Known For: Discovery of the First Treatment for Leprosy

In honoring Alice Ball for our HBDLadies Series, we have yet another woman whose accomplishments were hidden from history. Too often women’s role in history is left unwritten, their accomplishments forgotten, or in the case of Alice and many others, claimed by the men they work with.

Alice was born into a middle-class family in Seattle. After gaining an undergraduate degree she had to chose between scholarships at University of California Berkley and the College (now University) of Hawaii. Ball chose Hawaii and became the first African-American and the first woman to get an MS degree and to become a professor at the College. 

With her teaching position she continued research into the oil produced by the chaulmoogra tree. This oil had been used as a topical treatment for leprosy but Ball’s innovation was discovering a method to make the oil injectable. The results were astonishing, and according to records at least 8,000 people were cured of leprosy in Hawaii following her discovery.

Sadly, Ball took ill shortly after the discovery and development of the Ball Method. This meant she was unable to publish her findings and receive acclaim for her life-changing method. Alice died at only 24 years old, suffering complications from inhaling chlorine gas in a lab accident. Following her death, the President of the College Dr. Arthur Dean, continued her research and treatments, but without giving her credit.

Dean would eventually claim the method as his own, calling it the Dean Method. If not for an obscure mention in a publication in 1922, calling it the Ball Method, Alice’s contributions may have been forever lost. Ball’s treatment was used until the 1940s, but her work was not recognized until the 2000s.

In 2000, the University of Hawaii dedicated a plaque in her honor on the school’s only chaulmoogra tree. At the same ceremony, the then Lt. Governor of Hawaii named February 29th “Alice Ball Day.”

Speaking about her vast impact, researcher and Ball expert Paul Wermager stated “Not only did she overcome the racial and gender barriers of her time to become one of the very few African-American women to earn a master’s degree in chemistry, [but she] also developed the first useful treatment for Hansen’s disease. Her amazing life was cut too short at the age of 24. Who knows what other marvelous work she could have accomplished had she lived.”

Thankfully, Alice’s enduring legacy was not lost to the annals of history and we can celebrate her life and legacy on her birthday and on Alice Ball Day!

You can learn more about Alice here.

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