Home

A tribute to Alice Bell: a scientist whose work with leprosy was overshadowed by a white successor

Image

Alice Ball received a Bachelor of Science in pharmacy from the UW in 1914 and a Master of Science in chemistry from the University of Hawaii in 1915.

In 1915, a young black woman made a significant discovery at the University of Hawaii. A few years later the UW alumna passed away and her contribution was forgotten. It took several decades for her name to come up again.

In 1977, University of Hawaii professor Kathryn Takara, Ph.D., was beginning her research on black women in Hawaii when she came across the name of Alice Augusta Ball.

“Bit by bit, I began to uncover information about her,” Takara recalled.

She wasn’t the only one starting to become interested in the young chemist.

Stanley Ali, a retired federal worker, often visited the Hawaiian Islands and stumbled across her story while doing research on blacks in Hawaii. He gained support from UH faculty and students, resulting in a portrait of Ball that now hangs in the Hamilton Library on the university’s campus.

From Ali’s and others’ research, a little bit of Ball’s story has been pieced together.

She was the first black chemistry professor at the UH, where she was encouraged by Dr. Harry H. Hollman, the U.S. public health officer in Hawaii, to find a way to retrieve chaumoogra tree oil, which was known for its healing properties.

She extracted the oil and found that when injected, it relieved some of the symptoms of Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy.

For centuries, leprosy has attracted a large social stigma. It affects the nerves of the skin and often results in permanent damage to the skin and limbs. Due to the contagious nature of the disease, many societies created leper colonies for the sufferers.

Although not a full cure, Ball’s discovery was a significant marker in the fight against a disease that has plagued nations for thousands of years.

The discovery was coined, at least for the time being, the “Ball Method.”

Unfortunately, the Ball Method didn’t last long. A year following her find, Ball became ill and returned to Seattle, dying in 1916 at the age of 24 of unknown causes.

University of Hawaii president, Dr. Arthur Lyman Dean, continued Ball’s research. He became the namesake of the “Dean Method” and was credited with the discovery of chaulmoogra oil.

“She really did all the research,” Takara said. “The Ball Method became his method.”

Dean Hall on the University of Hawaii campus was named after him, and Ball was forgotten.

“The university ignored Alice Ball up until 10 or 12 years ago,” said Miles Jackson, University of Hawaii professor and dean emeritus.

When Takara began her research about Ball, she realized how little information there was about the black scholar.

“I had to dig really hard for it,” she said.

Researchers have not found any diaries or journals that offer clues to the personality of Ball or what drove her to make such a discovery. They can only guess at who she was.

At the very least, Jackson believes Ball was a capable young woman.

“Men dominated higher education in 1915 and Alice Ball was admitted against the odds,” he said. “She must have been a highly motivated woman to return to Hawaii alone, where she had no family.”

Ball was born July 24, 1892 in Seattle. She moved to Oahu in the early 1900s with her family. Both her parents were powerful: Her father, James P. Ball, was a lawyer and editor of a black newspaper while her mother, Laura Ball, was a photographer. James P. Ball Sr., her grandfather, was an abolitionist and a highly regarded photographer whose work was focused on prominent black leaders. It appears Ball was destined to follow in her family’s influential footsteps.

After attending elementary school in Hawaii, Ball and her family moved back to the mainland where she attended high school in Seattle.

She attended the UW after high school and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in pharmaceutical chemistry. Her only mark on the campus from that time is a mention in the 1914 UW yearbook, The Tyee.

After graduating from the UW, Ball returned to Oahu where she attended the College of Hawaii (later the University of Hawaii) as its first graduate student. She was not only the first black student to receive a master’s degree from the institute, but she was also the first black woman to graduate with that distinction.

“In fact, she was unique in America at the time because very few African-American women — and I suspect women in general — were given full access to graduate study in the sciences,” Jackson said. “It also points to a glass ceiling all women faced in America.”

On Feb. 29, 2000, the University of Hawaii honored the accomplished young woman with a plaque by the chaumoogra tree that still stands on campus.

Lt. Governor Mazie Hirono of Hawaii named Feb. 29th “Alice Ball Day.” The chemist is now celebrated every four years.

In 2007, Alice Ball was awarded posthumously with the University of Hawaii’s Regents’ Medal of Distinction.

“It’s quite the prestigious award,” Takara said.

Despite Ball’s recent recognition, many believe that more should be done. Students and faculty alike have talked about renaming Dean Hall to Ball Hall.

Takara remains positive that Ball will soon get her due respect.

“I do feel strongly that each year, that local newspapers, the media, will hear more about her,” she said. “She was quite a positive role model.”

[Reach reporter Erika Cederlind at features@thedaily.washington.edu.]

Please read our Comment policy.