Alice Ball was born in Hawaii, on July 24, 1892. She received her Master’ from the University of Hawaii and went on to become the university’s first female chemistry professor. She was the first woman and first African American to receive a master’s degree in 1914. She was obviously brilliant and that made her intimidating to the other male chemists at the university. It was very difficult for her to make friends, because allot of her male colleagues saw her as a rival in their research and she could never be sure if they were to be trusted. But that did not stop her! Alice wanted to make a difference.
Back then, thousands of people with leprosy were quarantined from 1866 by the Hawaiian government. Little was known about the disease and people feared it was highly contagious, though we now know it does not spread very easily. During the same time, other countries such as the UK, the US and India exiled people with leprosy to remote locations, where they were left to die. Back then in Hawaii, the best treatment available was chaulmoogra oil, which was difficult for patients to ingest or apply topically and too thick to inject. Taking the oil orally caused nausea, and by injection, in its unpurified form, chaulmoogra oil is not water soluble and does not react well with the body and causes too much agony for the patient.
Ball had been enlisted to help develop a treatment for leprosy by Dr Harry Hollmann, a chemist working on the treatment, using the oil from the seeds of the chaulmoogra tree. Chaulmoogra oil seemed to work in treating some cases of leprosy and had already been used for centuries in China and India for skin ailments. In between teaching, Ball worked in her lab and tried to purify the oil into chemical compounds called ethyl esters so it could be successfully injected. To do this, the oil first had to be converted into fatty acids. She realised the acid needs to be frozen overnight to give enough time for the esters to separate, as well as to stop them degrading at room temperature. Her discovery, the Ball method, led to the most effective treatment for leprosy at the time, one that was used until the 1940s, when a full cure was found.
Unfortunately, she died before she was able to publish the findings, and the president of the University of Hawaii attempted to claim the research as his own until Ball’s former supervisor publicly spoke out that she deserved the credit for the lifesaving injection. There are few historical records about Ball. She didn’t keep a diary that we know of and died in 1916 aged 24, possibly after inhaling chlorine gas in a lab accident. It wasn’t until the 21st century that her achievements were fully recognized, and the governor of Hawaii declared February 29 “Alice Ball Day.”