STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Today’s Woman in STEM mainly worked in the Science category.
Our fourth Woman in STEM is Alice Augusta Ball (July 24th, 1892 – December 31st, 1916). She was a Black American scientist who discovered the first cure for leprosy.
Alice Augusta Ball was born on July 24th, 1892 in Seattle, Washington, U.S. (1). She grew up in a middle-class family, her mother was Laura Ball and her father was James P Ball Jr, a lawyer (2). Her grandfather, J.P. Ball Sr was a well-known photographer and anti-slavery activist (3). This was long before digital cameras so Alice’s whole family assisted in the complex chemical procedure required for developing film into photographs (2). Seeing this process may have been the seed that piqued her interest in chemistry from early on.
In 1903, when Alice was 11, her family moved to the new U.S. territory of Hawaii. This was long before Hawaii was a state. They moved in hope that the warm climate would help reduce some health issues for J.P. Ball Sr. The family opened a photography studio there but J.P. Ball Sr died less than a year after moving (3). While in Hawaii Alice attended Central Grammar School (1). In 1905, when Alice was 13, the family returned to Seattle, Washington U.S. (3).
After finishing grammar school, back in Seattle, Alice attended the University of Washington (2,3). She earned a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree with a major in pharmaceutical chemistry in 1912 at 20 years of age and then a second degree in pharmacy in 1914 at 22 years of age (2,3). As an undergraduate student at the University of Washington Alice published her first research paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. This was and still is a top chemistry journal (1). Although it isn’t documented, Alice may be one of the first black women to be a co-author on an article in this Journal.
Right after finishing her B.S. degree in 1914, Alice received a scholarship for a Master of Science (M.S.) program at the College of Hawaii (Now known as the University of Hawaii) (1,2,3). During the 1914-1915 school year, Alice taught undergraduate courses in chemistry. She became the first woman to teach in the chemistry department at the University of Hawaii (1,2,3). After completing her M.S. degree, she became the first woman as well as the first black woman to earn an M.S. degree from the University of Hawaii. This is still years before women were even allowed entrance to most Ivy League universities (1,3).
While in graduate school at the University of Hawaii, Alice studied the effects of chaulmoogra oil on leprosy. Chaulmoogra oil is an extract from the Chaulmoogra tree. During this time period it was used as a topical, injectable, and oral ointment for temporary relief of leprosy symptoms. However, the severe side effects of using the chaulmoogra oil outweighed the temporary relief it brought. There was no cure for leprosy yet (1).
Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease, is a long-term infectious disease. It affects the nerves, skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It causes severe skin conditions and disfigurement, but not usually death. Before there was a cure, people with leprosy were disliked and banished from the public because of the fear of catching leprosy from them. Since leprosy usually did not cause death, victims of the disease were often condemned to live out their lives in isolated colonies. In Hawaii leprosy patients were isolated to the island of Molokai (2).
Alice’s knowledge on the active chemical in chaulmoogra oil and leprosy became known by Dr. Harry Hollmann, a surgeon working at a leprosy hospital with the isolated colony in Hawaii (1,2). Alice, began working for Dr. Hollmann to create an oil extract to preeminently treat leprosy (1). She developed a water-soluble version of the Chaulmoogra oil that was injectable for long term treatment for leprosy. In 1916, using her new treatment, the first ever leprosy patients were cured, released from the hospital, and allowed to return to society (2). Alice’s treatment was the most effective cure until the 1940s; over 24 years from when Alice developed this first leprosy cure (1).
Death and Beyond
Alice died tragically at age 24 on Dec 31st 1916. There are few details about her unexpected death but it is believed to be a combination of inhaling chlorine gas during a chemistry class demonstration and the exhaustion and stress from her research. After getting sick she returned to Seattle to be with family and died shortly after (3). She died before she could publish her results on discovering the cure for leprosy (2,3). Since her research was not published the chairman of the Chemistry Department at the University of Hawaii, Arthur Lyman Dean, took her research, refined it, and published it as his own. He called the cure that he stole from Alice the “Dean Method”.
In 1922 Dr. Hollmann attempted to reclaim Alice’s credit for her work by publishing an article and referring to the process for leprosy treatment that she created as the Ball Method in honor of her, Alice Augusta Ball (1,2). She was then again forgotten about until the year 2000, when a researcher, Paul Wermager, rediscovered her work from the University of Hawaii archives and published an article about it (2). In addition, Wermsger’s rediscovery led to a plaque at the University of Hawaii dedicated to Alice’s discovery and, lastly, in 2007, Alice was posthumously honored with a Medal of Distinction (1).
Overall, the Ball Method for leprosy treatment led to 78 patients recovering and going home. Before her method, no patient ever recovered once being diagnosed with leprosy (1).
See the list of all the scientists in this Women in STEM series here
- Dwyer, M.K. “A Woman Who Changed the World” (On-line) University of Hawai’i Foundation. Accessed in 2023 at https://www.uhfoundation.org/impact/students/woman-who-changed-world
- Tracey, L. “The Chemist Whose Work Was Stolen from Her” (On-line) JSTOR Daily. Accessed in 2023 at https://daily.jstor.org/the-chemist-whose-work-was-stolen-from-her/
- Jackson, M. “Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916)” (On-line) BlackPast. Accessed in 2023 at https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/people-african-american-history/ball-alice-augusta-1892-1916/
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