Wednesday's Women in STEM: Alice Ball
Throughout the globe, women have remained highly underrepresented in STEM-fields, and for the past few decades, the gap has been increasing exponentially. However, many women throughout history have challenged this stigma. Through their calamities and pertinacity, the future for women is more luminous. Take Alice Ball, an African American chemist who uncovered the first successful treatment for leprosy, which came to be known as the Ball Method. She was also the first African American and the first woman to graduate with an M.S degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii. Dismally, Ball had passed away at the young age of 24. During her lifetime, Ball did not receive credit or acknowledgment for her impactful discovery. It was not until after her death did she receive proper credit for her groundbreaking achievement.
Alice Ball was born on July 24, 1892, in Seattle Washington to parents Laura and James Ball. The middle child of two older brothers and a younger sister, Ball enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle. Ball excelled at Seattle High School, graduated in 1910, and went onto obtain multiple graduate degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Hawaii. Alice Ball was born on July 24, 1892, in Seattle, Washington, to her parents Laura and James Ball. The middle child of two older brothers and a younger sister, Ball enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle. Ball excelled at Seattle High School, graduated in 1910, and earned multiple graduate degrees from the University of Washington and Hawaii. After receiving undergraduate degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy in 1912 and 1914 from the University of Washington, Ball transferred to the University of Hawaii. In 1915, Ball was the first African American and woman to graduate from the University of Hawaii with an M.S degree in chemistry. She was offered a teaching and research position at the institution and became the first female chemistry instructor at 23 years old.
As a physician, Ball attempted to establish a leprosy disease cure. Her studies soon led her to develop the first injectable leprosy treatment using chaulmoogra tree oil, which was only a moderately effective topical agent used in Chinese and Indian medicine until then. Ball successfully separated the oil into components of varying molecular weights of fatty acids, enabling the oil into an injectable shape that is water-soluble. The scientific rigor of Ball developed a highly effective procedure for alleviating leprosy symptoms, later known as the "Ball Method," which was used for over thirty years before the advent of sulfone drugs on thousands of infected individuals.
Tragically, following dilemmas resulting from inhaling chlorine gas in a laboratory instruction accident, Ball died on December 31, 1916, at the young age of 24. She did not get to see the full effect of her discovery during her short lifespan. After her death, Ball's research was continued by the President of the University of Hawaii, Dr. Arthur Dean, without giving her credit for her discovery. Dean also claimed her discovery for himself, naming it the "Dean Method." Sadly, taking the credit for women's discoveries was commonplace for men and Ball fell victim to this trend. Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, the assistant surgeon at Kalihi Hospital who urged Ball to explore chaulmoogra oil, published a paper in 1922, six years after her death, giving Ball the proper credit she deserved. At such a young age, Alice Ball reshaped thousands of people’s lives as her work led to the creation of a new and effective treatment for leprosy. Alice Ball will always be remembered as a woman who faced tremendous obstacles but continued her work in the name of science.
BY: Tauba Ashrafi
Grillo, Ellena. “Alice Ball.” Oxford University Museum of Natural History, 2018, oumnh.ox.ac.uk/alice-ball.
Worthen, Meredith. “Alice Ball.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 8 Jan. 2021, www.biography.com/scientist/alice-ball.