Women’s History Month: Chemical Pioneer Alice Ball

At the age of 23, Alice Ball, an African American chemist, developed a technique for treating the dreaded disease leprosy.  The Ball Method, as it became known, remained the most effective treatment for leprosy until the 1940’s when a new family of drugs was developed to combat the disease.

Alice Ball

Alice was born in Seattle in 1892 . Her father was a lawyer and newspaper editor and her mother a photographer.  She graduated from Seattle High School in 1910 and attended the University of Washington where she earned a bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical chemistry and two years later another bachelor’s degree in pharmacy.

After graduation, she accepted a scholarship from the University of Hawaii (which was then called the College of Hawaii) to study for a master’s degree in chemistry.  Because of her interest and research involving the chemical properties of plants, she was approached by Dr. Harry Hollman to research the properties of a particular plant extract that had been traditionally used to treat leprosy.  Her research led to the development of a process to make this extractable to be injected and absorbed by the human body.  This process was what became known as the Ball Method. 

Unfortunately, Alice died of an illness at age 24 before her work could be published. Another chemist took credit for her work, published her findings under his name, and reaped the rewards for her discovery.  Five decades after her death two researchers at the University of Hawaii discovered the truth while searching University archives. This discovery publicly gave her the recognition she deserved.

Alice was the first African American to graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii and the first African American to work as a research chemist and instructor at the University.  Hawaii celebrates Alice Ball Day every four years on February 29.

Contributed by Adrian Clark, Diversity and Inclusion Officer

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