Scientist Spotlight: Alice Ball

I am going to ask you right now to take out your Bible (if you have one) and to open to Number 5:2, now go to Deuteronomy 24:8-9, next 2 Kings 7:3, then Leviticus 24:4. Let’s move on to the New Testament. Try Matthew 8:1-8, followed by Luke 17:12-19. At this point, you may be asking yourself why is she having us look up Bible verses, on a science blog no less?!? Well, if you looked at the Bible verses (which I don’t think the majority of you did) did you notice what they all mentioned? Leprosy. Yep, the disease that mentioned in the Bible more than 20 times, the disease that forced people to live in leprosy colonies, the disease that made people look like they were straight out of a horror film.

I have to say, that was a much larger introduction than I normally do and I commend you if you stuck through it with me. As you may have told from the title, this post is about Alice Ball, and you will see what that Bible-leprosy search was about in a minute.

Alice Ball was born in Seattle on July 24, 1892. While spending time with her grandfather is his photography studio, she was awed by chemistry.

Alice graduated from the University of Washington in 1912 with a degree in pharmaceutical chemistry and in 1914 with a degree in pharmacy. At this time, she published a 10-page article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. An impressive accomplishment given her age and gender. Also in 1914, Alice began studying at the College of Hawaii (later University of Hawaii) as a graduate student in chemistry. In June of 1915, she became the first African American AND the first woman to graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii.

Here’s where this lies into leprosy (Hansen’s disease). During the early 1900s, the disease was spreading its horrible skin lesions and numbness. Though we are still not sure how exactly it spreads, we now know it’s not contagious. However, 100 years ago, the police isolated the sick on the Kaluaupapa leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. There were also colonies in other parts of the world like Europe, the Caribbean, and India. The last colony that still exists is in Romania and had 19 lepers in 2011.

While Alice was in school, the only way to treat leprosy was the thick and sticky chaulmooga oil that couldn’t mix with water. The oil was difficult and ultimately ineffective if injected. Rubbing or swallowing it was equally unsuccessful. Alice was assigned on a project to research the effects of the oil. She figured out a way that the oil could be combined with water for a successful injection. The way of treatment she discovered has become the “Ball Method.” The Ball Method was widely used until the 1940s and even some remote areas used it as recent as 15 years ago.

Alice’s work treated many people who were burdened with leprosy and allowed them to rejoin their family and friends. Unfortunately, Alice died in 1916, at the age of 24. She was thought to have inhaled chlorine gas.

Although Alice was never able to really see the fruits of her labor, she accomplished something that was taking others hundreds of years out figure out. Her short life provided a long and lasting impact for the future of leprosy. The University of Hawaii honored her with a plaque on a chaulmoogra tree and in 2007 awarded her the Regents Medal of Distinction. In 2000, he Governor of Hawaii declared February 29 “Alice Ball Day.”

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Have Changed the World, Rachel Ignotofsky

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