The amazing story of the black woman who found a cure for leprosy
In an essay on uncelebrated African-American trailblazers by contemporary chemist and current Executive Director of the Marburger STEM Center at Lawrence Technological University (LTU) in Southfield, Michigan, Dr. Sibrina Nichelle Collins, she writes as an introduction on Alice Augusta Ball;
These scientists are not important because of their race, but that is a reason they’ve historically been overlooked. This editorial series will serve as a platform to increase recognition and explore the remarkable intellectual contributions of these ‘unsung’ African-American scientists.”
Born on July 24th 1892 to a Lawyer, photographer and newspaper editor father, Alice could not say she had been new to breaking grounds. Her Grandfather, one of the first African Americans to have learned daguerreotypy, the first publicly available photographic process which involved polishing a sheet of silver plated copper to make images, went on to become a renowned photographer.
Thus, her Seattle based family was middle class. The family moved to Hawaii in 1903 where her father opened a studio, but back to Seattle in 1905 when he died less than a year after the move. Nine years after the death of her father, Alice graduated with her first degree in Pharmaceutical chemistry from the University of Washington, and followed with a second degree in Pharmacy two years later.
Her exit from the university was greeted with numerous scholarships for her performance, she nonetheless, perhaps nostalgic for the life her father had attempted to build, entered the College of Hawaii as a graduate student in Chemistry. One year later, she in the spirit of groundbreaking imminent in the Ball family became the first African American and the first woman to graduate with a master of Science degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii.
The Kalaupapa peninsula -a rich stretch of land on the island of Molokai, Hawaii was in the 1800’s the home of anyone diagnosed with leprosy in the region. Although leprous people in many places were known to wear bells to announce their presence, the region because of the communicable nature of the disease introduced laws that legalized the arresting and quarantining of infected people on the island.
“We couldn’t say bye to our families, I just cried and waved until I couldn’t see my mother no more,” Brede, a leprous woman held captive on the island, recalled in a 2015 feature on CNN, “We lost track of our families … so we don’t know who we’re related to.”
It was in this setting and fueled by bitterness for the barbaric isolation of leprous patients that Alice began her work. She who would become a hero, she who would save these ones who had been condemned to die. For her masters thesis, Ball investigated the chemical makeup and active principle of Piper methysticum (kava).
Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, an assistant surgeon at Kalihi Hospital had during this period asked Ball to devise a means of separating the effective ingredients in chaulmoogra oil which had previously been used in leprosy treatments to varied outcomes, with most patients developing extreme reactions to the oil.
She began investigating the chemical properties of the oil, managed to isolate the effective ingredients and this led to a injection-based medicine that became the treatment for over two decades.
Ball died before she could publish her results at twenty-four from inhaling chlorine gas during a class demonstration in Honolulu and her research work would be picked up by Arthur L. Dean, who would criminally publish her findings to the world without in anyway crediting Ball and her work and would rename the process, Dean’s method.
It was not until, Dr Hollmann began to speak up for now deceased Alice that researchers began to learn of Ball and her vital contribution. Although for ninety years after her death, and during the course of her lifetime, she received no accolade for her groundbreaking discoveries, in 2000, the university finally honored Ball by dedicating a plaque to her on the school’s chaulmoogra tree and February 29th was named “Alice Ball Day” which is now a quadrennial celebration.
Featured Image: Daily Mail. Father Damien and the banished leprous patients on Molokai.