Women In Science: Alice Ball

Alicia Augusta Ball

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Last week I blogged about Elizabeth Blackwell in honor of the Women In Science History Event hosted by Doing Dewey. This week I would like to feature Alice Ball.
I am reading  Women In Science- 50 fearless pioneers who changed the world by Rachel Ignotofsky and I am learning so much about the various women of science, including how little I know about them.

As I was reading through this book, I knew that I wanted to write about Alice Ball; I found her story both inspiring and heartbreaking. She was someone that I was previously ignorant of, but thanks to this book, I now know what a remarkable woman she was. In her short life she made a big impact on seriously ill patients who were ostracized by their society. What did she do?  She developed a treatment for Leprosy that was able to be injected. Sadly, I also learned about the leper colony in Hawaii where those afflicted with Leprosy were sent-often after being arrested! Arrested for being sick!?? This is why science is so important: so facts trump fear.

A treatment already existed, the “sticky oil of the Chaulmoogra tree’s seeds”, but it couldn’t be mixed with water and injected (it wasn’t very effective when applied topically or ingested). Alice Ball changed that and at the age of 23, she successfully developed a method to inject this vital remedy by “…isolating the ethyl esters in its fatty acids, she found the oil could be blended with water for injection.” P 45  This is the key to her work: the medicine could now be injected, making it much more effective. In doing so, she reunited families and allowed those afflicted with Leprosy to return home to live normal lives.

Alice Ball was remarkable in many ways. She was not only the first woman, but also the first African-American to graduate from the University of Hawaii. What an accomplishment! She earned her Masters degree in chemistry and then immediately went to work. Sadly,  she passed away at the age of 24. Tragic.

 The book gives a very high level overview of her life, but further reading adds that someone else took credit for her ideas after her death and it was many years before she was recognized for her contributions. Also, there seems to be some controversy over her death and her death certificate may even have been altered. The book doesn’t get into this, further online reading does, but I would love to learn more about this amazing woman and seek out a good biography of her. I would also like to learn more about this leper colony. As it turns out, Leprosy is NOT highly contagious and it’s sad to think about how this fear of contagion has hurt so many people through the years. Learning more about this disease and this colony would highlight, not only her contribution to science, but just how she set so many people free.