Alice Ball developed the first truly effective treatment for leprosy (Hansen’s disease), but you likely haven’t heard of her. In fact, after her tragic early death, a colleague continued her work and published her findings without giving her credit until another colleague called him out. Even then, it took decades before the University of Hawaii (UH)(then known as the College of Hawaii), where she conducted her groundbreaking work, honored her contributions, despite Ball being the university’s first African American chemist, researcher, and teacher as well as the first woman to earn a master’s degree from UH (in 1915).
Ball was born in Seattle in 1892 and received degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy from the University of Washington before pursuing a masters in chemistry from UH. A Hawaiian public health officer, Dr. Harry Hollman, learned about her master’s thesis work extracting the active chemical from awa roots and approached her with a proposition. For years, the oil from chaulmoogra trees had been used as an ointment to treat leprosy, but with limited success. Hollman asked her to work on extracting the active components in the oil to create an injectable medicine. Ball was successful and her work revolutionized leprosy treatment, allowing patients to be discharged from hospitals and released from leper colonies. This treatment would remain standard until the advent of new drugs in the 1940s.
Despite the unquestionable value of Ball’s work, she almost didn’t receive any credit for it. After she died before the chance to publish her work, the president of the college, Arthur Dean, continued her work, publishing it without crediting her. The techniques she developed became known as “Dean’s method” and until 1922, when Dr. Hollman wrote an article exposing the true story, and referring to the method as “Ball’s method”. And it wasn’t until 2000 that UH memorialized her with a dedication plaque at the base of the campus’s sole chaulmoogra tree, largely due to the detective work and advocacy of Paul Wermager, a retired Science/Technology Reference Department Head at UH, and colleagues. In 2007, UH awarded Ball a posthumous Medal of Distinction, and they later announced a scholarship in her honor.
Although the particulars of Alice’s story are unique, she is far from alone in the multitudes of women scientists, especially women of color, who have been forgotten or ignored by history. Let’s help shine light on the lives of these amazing women and prevent their stories from being buried.