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Alice Ball - Chemist and developer of the most effective treatment for leprosy

Alice Ball - Chemist and developer of the most effective treatment for leprosy

Black History Month - Focus on Science

As we move with hope and vigor towards a time in which the monumental achievements and contributions of Black and Indigenous folks are recognized with priority for 12 months of the year rather than sequestered to our calendar's shortest month, hBARSCI wishes to pay tribute to a handful of extremely important scientists. 

Though often underrepresented in history, these are people who have aided immeasurably in the evolution of humankind's understanding of our world and universe, and in our ability to survive on a small rock tearing through space at 1,000 miles per hour.

We will feature a Scientist weekly throughout the month, and it is our hope that these small bits of commentary will encourage further curiosity and learning. If there is a particular scientist who you would like to see featured here at any time of year, don't hesitate to reach out and let us know.  


Alice Ball

To understand why we chose Alice Ball as a starting point for this series, it’s super important to understand what Leprosy was prior to Ball, and what it meant to those afflicted. 

Leprosy typically guaranteed a lifetime of isolation, illness, and tragedy. To learn more about that disastrous, and somewhat still active episode in our history, I recommend this article over at https://www.history.com/news/leprosy-colonies-us-quarantine

It’s worth noting that the article fails to mention Ball, thus highlighting the need for posts such as this one.  Alice Ball can be thanked for breaking open the door to the lengthy hallway of medical discovery that has turned this once prevalent medical catastrophe into a relative afterthought for most folks.   


Alice was born in Seattle in 1892. She was a dominant force in Seattle High’s science department prior to moving on to the University of Washington and obtaining a couple of degrees in pharmacy/pharmaceutical chemistry. Upon completion of these studies, Ball relocated to Hawaii to earn a Master’s in chemistry, which was ultimately the stepping stone to her greatest contribution to our world.  

Ball started working with Chaulmoogra oil in her early 20’s, in an effort to isolate the compounds that were effective in treating leprosy from the oily compounds that had a tendency to build up under the skin after injection creating a blistered texture and causing obvious discomfort. 


At 23, she developed what would eventually be known as The Ball Method. This was the first useful treatment for Leprosy that would become available after being mass produced by the University of Hawaii, which led to 78 patients being released from Hawaii’s Kalihi Leprosarium over the next two years alone. 

The dramatic changes to treatment plans using the Ball method instantly changed the lives of thousands of patients that would’ve otherwise lived out their lives in exile. Due to an extremely untimely and early death at 24, Ball was never able to fully realize her impact on the world. 

Shortly after her death, her method was released as The Dean Method by Arthur L. Dean, in a not so awesome display of posthumous recognition. Years later, Dr. Harry Hollman brought this to light and the method of extraction was appropriately renamed as The Ball Method.


Resources for this post and sources for further learning on Alice Ball and Leprosy:

https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/alice-ball-leprosy/

https://www.chemistryworld.com/culture/alice-balls-treatment-for-leprosy/4011313.article#/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Ball

https://scientificwomen.net/women/ball-alice-121

https://leprosyhistory.org/

https://www.biography.com/scientist/alice-ball

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