Alice Ball and Chaulmoogra Oil

A friend of mine brought up the name Alice Ball to me recently, and I decided to share a little bit of what I have learned since Alice Ball day has just passed (February 29).

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Alice Ball was born into a middle class family in 1892. In her college years she studied chemistry, receiving undergraduate degrees in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and Pharmacy at the University of Washington (Biography). She went on to achieve an M.S. in Chemistry at the University of Hawaii and was not only the first African American to receive this degree, but also the first woman (Biography). Alice focused her attention on finding a cure for leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease. She looked at the oil from a Chaulmoogra tree, which was applied topically in Chinese and Indian medicine (Biography). She wanted to find a way to make the oil injectable but the problem was that it was not water soluble, making it very difficult for the human body to absorb (Science Friday). Alice was able to take compounds of the oil and modify them to become more soluble, and before the 1940s, her injectable was used on countless patients to alleviate the symptoms leprosy caused. Her discovery allowed many patients with leprosy to live more comfortable lives and this treatment was soon termed the “Ball Method.”

In 1916, Alice Ball died unexpectedly at the young age of 24 due to inhaling chlorine gas in a lab accident (Biography). After her death, Dr. Arthur Dean at the University of Hawaii continued with Alice’s research, claiming her discoveries as his own (Biography). It wasn’t until 1922 that the record was set straight by Dr. Harry Hollmann who wrote a paper giving her credit for her work (Biography). Mazie Hirono, the former Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii declared February 29 as Alice Ball Day, the same day in 2000 that the University of Hawaii honored her with a plaque in front of a Chaulmoogra tree on campus (History of Scientific Women). 

Until Next Time

N.F.

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