- Born: Alice Augusta Ball, July 24 1892, Washington
- Died: Alice Augusta Ball, December 31 1916, Washington
- Area of study: pharmaceutical chemistry and biochemistry
- Main achievements: creating a soluble version of chaulmoogra oil, and thus developing the first effective treatment for Hansen’s disease
Not much is really known about Alice’s early life, as there are no writings of her own (as has been the case with women such as Rita Levi-Montalcini and Mary Somerville – we knew their early life because they told us).
We do know, however, that she pops up at the University of Washington, and gets not one, but TWO degrees: one in pharmaceutical chemistry, and then a Bachelor of Science majoring in Pharmacy, in 1912 and 1914 respectively. She then travelled to Hawai’i to the University of Hawai’i (then called College of Hawai’i) to pursue her Masters of Science in chemistry, which she completed in 1915. It was entitled “The Chemical Constituents of Piper Methysticum: The Chemical Constituents of Active Principles of the Ava Root”. While the title is a bit of a mouthful, it’s quite descriptive: the thesis was centred around Alice isolating, extracting, and analysing the active ingredients in Ava Root, which is also known as Kava, and is considered semi-narcotic. She then worked at the university as a chemistry instructor (I’m assuming this is analogous to a lab demonstrator and tutor these days), and she was the first African-American female to do so. Oh, and she was also the first woman to graduate from the University with a Masters in chemistry, as well as the first African-American to graduate from the University! She was definitely a woman of firsts. It was this work that got her approached by Dr. Tollmann, but that comes a bit later.
Hansen’s Disease and Alice’s involvement
I think it’s a good idea to start with some context for this section, as this part of history may not be as familiar as some of the other focuses of this blog.
Hansen’s disease, which used to be known as leprosy, is a not a huge deal now, especially in developed countries. However, this was not always the case. Any disease affecting the skin, nerves, nervous system, AND the immune system is not going to be fun. The condition is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae, and can now be treated with antibiotics. However, antibiotics are a rather new invention. So, for the vast majority of history (until the 1950s) treatments for the disease were difficult to come by.
The bacteria and the body’s immune response cause lesions on the skin which are numb, as well nodules, and these can occur over the entire body. While it’s treatable now, and not very contagious, this used to be a very different story. I won’t go into gory details, but if it’s your jam, you can go research it if you really want to (I suppose it’s a decent way to procrastinate if you’re into that sort of thing, I promise I won’t judge you for your procrastination habits, especially because mine involve writing this very blog).
Hansen’s disease had become a serious problem on Hawai’i by the start of the 20th century, for a myriad of complicated reasons. Because of this, “colonies” were set up to house victims of the disease, and they were sent there for life. This obviously had devastating effects for everyone involved. I can’t pretend to do justice to their stories, but if you’re interested, see the bibliography for some great resources. One of these colonies was called Kalaupapa, and was set up on the island of Molokai. This is where patients from the hospital of Kalihi (near Honolulu, the capital) were sent if their condition didn’t improve after six months (according to some accounts– others have said that patients were treated there for at least 5 years).
Chaulmoogra oil had been used for centuries as a treatment for leprosy and other dermatological conditions (as it was then known), in places such as India and Burma. However, it was only applied topically, which limited its efficacy as a treatment. Attempts to ingest the oil went poorly, and patients became extremely nauseous and refused the treatment. Injecting the oil wasn’t much better either. Chaulmoogra oil is exactly that, an oil, which means it’s hydrophobic and doesn’t like water (see that long relatively straight bit in the photo? Yeah, that’s why it doesn’t like being injected into the body). The problem is, the body is 78% water, so you can see why this would present a problem (hint, oil and water don’t mix, see the nearest salad dressing).
Alice was not the first person to work on using chaulmoogric acid in treating Hansen’s disease. Powers and Gornall had isolated the active ingredients back in 1904, but isolating them didn’t mean they could use them. Doctors at various leprosy hospitals has been trying to inject these fatty acids into patients, which didn’t go down well (the whole burning and nausea thing wasn’t gaining any fans in the patients). It was Dr. Henry Tollmann who approached Alice and asked for her help. He was working at Kalihi hospital, and was hoping to find a way to use the oil. Alice developed the Ball Method, which turned these fatty acids into esters ( a compound which occurs when a fatty acid is reacted with an alcohol), once they were crystallised out of solution. Alice worked with Tollmann, and he used this treatment on his patients at the hospital.
84 (some accounts say 78- you can see this story gets a bit blurry in parts) patients being treated by Tollmann were released from Kalihi (placed on parole), and they were suffering from various forms of leprosy. This is really quite remarkable, as most people who were sent to the hospital, if they didn’t recover quickly (which it is possible to do from leprosy, like any other bacterial infection), many ended up being sent to one of the colonies for life. This meant that 84 (or 78) people, and their families, got a new chance at life. Tollmann writes that the treatment “caus[ed] the disappearance of the legions and the leper bacilli (bacteria)”. It was thought that the active ingredient literally just overwhelmed the bacteria so it couldn’t survive (which is different to how modern antibiotics work).
Unfortunately, Alice became ill and returned home at the end of 1916, and died in Washington with her family on December 31. It is not known what caused this illness, but it has been speculated that a lab accident exposed her to chlorine gas, which is not a nice way to go. Because she died so soon, she was not able to write up her own research and method of the work she did for Tollmann. So, as is often the case with history, her supervisor (and University President) swooped in and claimed the work as his own. Arthur Dean published her work and gave her no credit, and continued to develop her methods with Jonathon McDonald, whom worked at Kahili hospital.
Tollmann saw the work they were publishing, and the fact that the pair weren’t giving Alice due credit, and decided he wouldn’t stand for it. He called them out, and published his own work “The Fatty Acid of Chaulmoogric Oil in the Treatment of Leprosy & Other Diseases” in 1922. In this work, he detailed the method that Alice used, presented the story of how he approached Alice to work with him, as well as mentioning the fact that her method was actually simpler than the method Dean and McDonald were using, even though they were the ones who had “developed” her work (you’d think if they got longer to work on it, they’d make it easier, but apparently not).
The Ball Method was used until the 1950s, when antibiotics finally became viable, and as the infection is bacterial, they were effective.
Injustices of Alice’s World
As an African American woman in science in the early 20th century, Alice had to face extreme prejudice for multiple aspects of her identity. I’m not even going to pretend that I know any of what she went through, but I know she was a damn tough woman to get through all that. We don’t have any personal writings from Alice, so it’s somewhat difficult to know the conditions she faced on a daily basis from her supervisors and her students, but I can’t imagine they were all that great.
And on top of everything she had to fight for to get her 3 degrees, she also had the “privilege” of having a rich, powerful white guy stealing her work (he did get his just desserts though, if you google his name now, it only comes up in relation to the work done by Alice: who’s famous now?).
While her treatment might not be in use today, that doesn’t mean that her work didn’t matter. That patients paroled from Kalihi were free: she changed their lives, and the lives of their loved ones.
The University of Hawai’i named and runs a charitable foundation in her honour: the Alice Augusta Ball Foundation, which presents the Alice Augusta Ball Scholarship to minority students pursuing a degree in chemistry, biology, or microbiology (Alice’s areas of research).
In 2000, the University of Hawai’i honoured Alice by placing a plaque with her name at the base of the University’s Chaulmoogra Tree (note to anyone who intends on going to Hawai’i with me, yes, I will be visiting this tree). In the same year, Hawai’i’s Governor declared Alice Ball Day on February 29 (sorry if you were planning on celebrating it before 2020).
In 2007, she was also posthumously presented with the Regent’s Medal of Distinction from her University (she joins Maya Angelou among ranks of the honoured). This is the University’s highest honour, and is well deserved.
What would Alice like about today’s world?
As I’ve mentioned, we don’t have any of her personal writings, so we don’t know her very well. But we can assume that she’s be pretty pleased that women, and especially black women, are getting advanced degrees in chemistry, biology, and biochemistry.
She might also be interested in the work being done by Youyou Tu, and others like her, in isolating compounds from essential oils and plants to treat terrible diseases. Youyou Tu isolated an active ingredient in Artemisia annua, otherwise known as sweet wormwood, as a treatment for malaria (which is the world’s most dangerous disease), after she was inspired by Chinese Traditional Medicine. To be honest, Tu deserves her own blog post – she did win a Nobel Prize – but she’s not exactly historic, as she’s still scienc-ing strong (totally a word) to this day.
So while thing’s didn’t turn out great for Alice in the short run, in the long run her legacy is remembered to this day (and is arguably remembered more than the men who tried to steal her thunder).
(As always, shout out to my awesome cousin for proofreading these to make sure I come across as an eloquent communicator, even when she had assignments due. Thanks lovely ❤ )
Analysis for Science Librarians of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: The Life and Work of William C. Campbell, Satoshi Ōmura, and Youyou Tu. (2016). Science & Technology Libraries, 35(1), 35-58. doi:10.1080/0194262X.2016.1154493
Ball, A. (1915). The Chemical Constituents of Piper Methysticum; The Chemical Constituents of the Active Principle of the Ava Root.
Dehn, W. M., & Ball, A. A. (1914). BENZOYLATIONS IN ETHER SOLUTION. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 36(10), 2091-2101. doi:10.1021/ja02187a015
Dehn, W. M., & Ball, A. A. (1917). COLORIMETRIC STUDIES OF PICRATE SOLUTIONS. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 39(7), 1381-1392. doi:10.1021/ja02252a010
ExporterIndia: Chaulmoogra Oil. Retrieved from http://www.exportersindia.com/shree-naturals/chaulmoogra-oil-kochi-india-1463276.htm
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Law, A. S. (2012). Kalaupapa. [electronic resource] : a collective memory: Honolulu : University of Hawaiʻi Press, ©2012. (Baltimore, Md. : Project MUSE, 2013).
McDonald, J. T. (1920). Treatment of leprosy with the dean derivatives of chaulmoogra oil: Apparent cure in seventy-eight cases. Journal of the American Medical Association, 75(22), 1483-1487. doi:10.1001/jama.1920.02620480021007
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PubMed. (2017b). Hydnocarpic acid. Retrieved from https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Hydnocarpic_acid – section=Top
Rogers, L. (1921). CHAULMOOGRA OIL IN LEPROSY AND TUBERCULOSIS. The Lancet, 197(5101), 1178-1180. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(01)24824-7
Tollmann, H. T. (1922). The Fatty Acid of Chaulmoogra Oil in the Treatment of Leprosy & Other Diseases. Arch. Dermatol. Syph, 94-101.
Washington, U. o. (2017). UWSOP alumni legend Alice Ball, class of 1914, solved leprosy therapy riddle. Retrieved from https://sop.washington.edu/uwsop-alumni-legend-alice-ball-class-of-1914-solved-leprosy-riddle/