Skip to main content
No. 3205:
Alice Augusta Ball

by Andy Boyd

Today, a legacy with a sad coda. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Alice Augusta Ball was a rising star. A black woman born into a comfortable middle-class family in 1892 in Seattle, her father was a newspaper editor, photographer, and lawyer. Ball excelled in the sciences at her high school and went on to study pharmacy and pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Washington. After receiving multiple scholarship offers, she chose to attend the University of Hawaii for a master's degree in chemistry, staying on to teach and do research. It was here that Ball would make her mark in the treatment of leprosy.

Alicia Augusta Ball
Alicia Augusta Ball   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Most people who've heard of leprosy, or Hansen's disease, have probably read about it in the Bible. It's a disfiguring disease that slowly damages the skin and nervous system. It's contagious, though not nearly as contagious as once thought. And that's why people inflicted with leprosy have been shunned from society throughout history.

Decades before Ball arrived in Hawaii, a leper colony had been established on the secluded northern shores of the island of Molokai. With little effective treatment for the disease, infected individuals were banished to the island to deteriorate and die. Over its lifetime the colony would be home to some eight-thousand exiles.

Young Hansen's disease patients during the early years of settlement at Kalawao
Young Hansen's disease patients during the early years of settlement at Kalawao   Photo Credit: National Park Service

The appalling situation wasn't lost on the Hawaiian medical establishment. At the recommendation of Dr. Harry Hollmann, Ball began investigations into the treatment of leprosy using chaulmoogra oil, an oil made from the seeds of trees found in India. Chaulmoogra oil had long been known as an effective treatment for leprosy, but it was so thick and sticky it wasn't easily absorbed by the skin. Ball's goal was to alter the raw oil into a form that would be absorbed when injected. And at the age of only twenty-three her research was bearing fruit.

But then the unthinkable happened. Within a year she died, the apparent result of complications from a lab accident. With her work unfinished and unpublished, it was taken up by her supervisor and head of the chemistry department, Arthur Dean. And in a series of scholarly papers pursuing the same goals as Ball, Dean failed to even mention Ball's work. The treatment technique he developed, which was widely adopted, became known as "Dean's method."

The story might have ended there. But Dr. Harry Hollmann, who had originally interested Ball in her research, stepped forward to attest to the young woman's achievements. Describing in detail the "great amount of experimental work [by which Ball] had solved the problem" of isolating the necessary constituents from the chaulmoogra oil, Hollmann referred to the technique as "Ball's method" - the name that is applied to this day.

Handbook of medical treatment (1919)
Handbook of medical treatment (1919)   Photo Credit: Wikipedia

A happy ending, but sadly, while her life-saving work will forever be remembered, her own life came to an end far too soon. She was accomplished, ambitious, and just beginning her life and career. Who knows what she might have achieved? But even more, who knows what joys and sorrows she might have experienced in life's long journey?

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Alice Ball. From the Biography website: Accessed February 1, 2019.

Alice Ball. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed February 1, 2019.

Kalaupapa: People. From the National Park Service website: Accessed February 1, 2019.

John Parascandola. "Chaulmoogra Oil and the Treatment of Leprosy." Pharmacy in History 45, no. 2 (2003): 47-57.