We’ve all had a moment, standing near some blatantly sick person, where we desperately hope that we aren’t going to get sick ourselves. Thanks to modern medicine, however, usually the worst we’ll catch is the flu. After all, you’re not about to catch leprosy, right? It turns out that there’s a reason for that—and her name is Alice Ball.
In the United States, leprosy is a very rare disease, with less than two hundred cases reported in 2015. The number of chronic global cases has been decreasing as well, owing to both the number of drugs available that can treat the infection and the World Health Organization’s commitment to eradicating the disease and the stigma associated with it. Before 1915, however, there was no effective treatment for leprosy. A substance known as Chaulmoogra oil, derived from the seeds of the chaulmoogra tree, was known to be effective against the bacteria that caused leprosy, but the oil was too sticky to be used topically, too thick to be injected, and too acrid to be ingested. Finding some way to make the oil useful, then, was an important step in starting to actually treat leprosy, rather than simply isolating those affected by it.
Enter Alice Ball. Born in 1892, Ball entered the College of Hawaii in 1914 as a graduate student, bringing to the table degrees in both pharmacy and pharmaceutical chemistry. She proved a formidable researcher, working on her own thesis in addition to her project on chaulmoogra oil. At just 23, a year after entering the college, Ball successfully developed a technique for modifying chaulmoogra oil into an injectable, absorbable compound. This compound proved so successful that it remained the standard treatment for leprosy until the 1940s, when it was replaced by antibacterial sulfonamide drugs. Ball’s work had such an impact that she was offered a position teaching chemistry at the College of Hawaii, making her the first woman to join the ranks of the university’s teaching staff.
Alice Ball’s graduation photo from the University of Washington, where she earned her degrees in pharmacy and pharmaceutical chemistry.
Tragically, Alice Ball passed away at the age of 24. Although her original death certificate gave her cause of death as tuberculosis, it is believed that she actually passed of injuries relating to the inhalation of chlorine gas, which she accidentally inhaled during a gas mask demonstration. After her death, the college president, Arthur L. Dean, published his “Dean Method” for producing the injectable chaulmoogra extract based on Ball’s work. He did not credit her for developing the technique. This action, in conjunction with Ball’s untimely death, obscured her legacy until 1977, when her records were discovered in the University of Hawaii’s archives. In 2000, the word about Ball’s work finally resulted in some measure of recognition: the University of Hawaii erected a plaque for her on the campus, on the chaulmoogra tree that she had extracted the oil from.
The plaque on the University of Hawaii’s Chaulmoogra tree, commemorating Alice Ball’s work. Photo courtesy of thewalkinghawaiian2.blogspot.com.
Ball’s work was the first step in eradicating an age-old disease. While cases still persist, the decline in the prevalence of leprosy started with her breakthrough. The erasure of her work is upsetting, but I find its eventual re-discovery heartening, as it serves as proof that forgotten women can be remembered, if only someone gets the ball rolling.