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Sun, 07.24.1892

Alice Ball, Chemist born

Alice Ball

*Alice Ball was born on this date in 1892.  She was a Black chemist and researcher.

Alice Augusta Ball was born in Seattle, Washington, to James Presley and Laura Louise (Howard) Ball.  She was one of four children, with two older brothers, William and Robert, and a younger sister, Addie.  Her family was middle-class and well off, as Ball's father was a newspaper editor of the Colored Citizen, photographer, and lawyer.  Her mother also worked as a photographer.  

Her grandfather, James Presley Ball Sr., was a famous photographer, and one of the first Black Americans to make use of daguerreotypy, the process of printing photographs onto metal plates. Some researchers have suggested that her parents' and grandfather's love for photography may have played a role in her love for chemistry, as they worked with mercury vapors and iodine sensitized silver plates to develop photos. Alice Ball and her family moved from Seattle to Honolulu in 1903 in hopes that the warm weather would relieve her grandfather's arthritis. He died shortly after the move and in 1905 they relocated back to Seattle after only a year in Hawaii.

After returning to Seattle, Ball attended Seattle High School and graduated in 1910.  Ball went on to study chemistry at the University of Washington, earning a bachelor's degree in pharmaceutical chemistry in 1912 and a second bachelor's degree in the science of pharmacy two years later in 1914. Alongside her pharmacy instructor, Williams Dehn, she published a 10-page article, "Benzoylations in Ether Solution", in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.  

After graduating, Ball decided to study for a master's degree in chemistry.  At the College of Hawaii, her master's thesis involved studying the chemical properties of the Kava plant species. Because of this research and her understanding of the chemical makeup of plants, she was later approached by Dr. Harry T. Hollmann to study chaulmoogra oil and its chemical properties. Chaulmoogra oil had been the best treatment available for leprosy for hundreds of years, and Ball developed a much more effective injectable form. In 1915 she became the first woman and first Black to graduate with a master's degree from the College of Hawaii.  Ball was also the first Black "research chemist and instructor" in the College of Hawaii's chemistry department. 

At the University of Hawaii, Ball investigated the chemical makeup and active principle of Piper methysticum (kava) for her master's thesis.  Because of this work, she was contacted by Dr. Harry T. Hollmann at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii, who needed an assistant for his research into the treatment of leprosy. At the time, leprosy or Hansen's Disease was a highly stigmatized disease with virtually no chance of recovery. People diagnosed were exiled to the Hawaiian island of Molokai with the expectation that they would die there.  The best treatment available was chaulmoogra oil, from the seeds of the Hydnocarpus wightianus tree from the Indian subcontinent, which had been used medicinally from as early as the 1300s. But the treatment was not very effective, and every method of application had problems. 

At age 23, Ball developed a technique to make the oil injectable and absorbable by the body. Her technique involved isolating ester compounds from the oil and chemically modifying them, producing a substance that retained the oil's therapeutic properties and was absorbed by the body when injected.  Unfortunately, due to her untimely death, Ball was unable to publish her revolutionary findings.  Alice Ball died on December 31, 1916, at age 24.

She had become ill during her research and returned to Seattle for treatment a few months before her death.  A 1917 Pacific Commercial Advertiser article suggested that the cause may have been chlorine poisoning due to exposure while teaching in the laboratory.  It was reported that Ball was giving a demonstration on how to properly use a gas mask in preparation for an attack, as World War I was raging in Europe.  But the cause of her death is unknown, as her original death certificate was altered to cite tuberculosis.  

Arthur L. Dean, a chemist and later the president of the University of Hawaii, stole her work, published the findings, and began producing large quantities of the injectable chaulmoogra extract.  Dean published the findings without giving Ball credit and named the technique after himself. In 1920, a Hawaii physician reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that 78 patients had been discharged from Kalihi Hospital by the board of health examiners after treatment with injections of Ball's modified chaulmoogra oil.  The isolated ethyl ester remained the preferred treatment for leprosy until sulfonamide drugs were developed in the 1940s.

It was not until years after her death that Hollmann attempted to correct this injustice. He published a paper in 1922 giving credit to Ball, calling the injectable form of the oil the "Ball method."  In the 1970s, Kathryn Takara and Stanley Ali, professors at the University of Hawaii, searched the archives to find Ball's research. After numerous decades they were able to bring her efforts and achievements to light.  The University of Hawaii finally honored Ball in 2000 by dedicating a plaque to her on the school's only chaulmoogra tree behind Bachman Hall.  On the same day, the former Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii, Mazie Hirono, declared February 29 "Alice Ball Day," which is now celebrated every four years.  

In 2007 the University Board of Regents honored Ball with a Medal of Distinction, the school's highest honor.  In March 2016 Hawaiʻi Magazine placed Ball on its list of the most influential women in Hawaiian history. In 2018 a new park in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood was named after Ball. In 2019 the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine added her name to the frieze atop its main building, along with Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie, in recognition of their contributions to science and global health research.  

In February 2020, a short film, The Ball Method premiered at the Pan African Film Festival.  University of Hawaii students have asked whether more should be done to resolve the wrongful actions of former President Dean, including proposals to rename Dean Hall after Ball instead.  On November 6, 2020, a satellite named after her (ÑuSat 9 or "Alice", COSPAR 2020-079A) was launched into space.  

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