Women: Alumnae

Alice Ball

Alice Ball (1892-1916)
by Paul Wermager
Head, Science and Technology Reference, Hamilton Library

Alice Augusta Ball accomplished many firsts at the University of Hawaii (then called the College of Hawaii). She was the first woman to earn a master’s degree (1915) and the college’s first African American chemist, instructor and researcher. She was also the first to accomplish what countless researchers around the world had failed to do for centuries: develop a useful treatment for Hansen’s disease (leprosy).

Student. Although born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Ball accompanied her family and ailing grandfather, J. P. Ball, Sr.—a famous African American daguerreotypist—to Hawaii in 1903. She attended Central Grammar School in Honolulu and made a lasting impression on an eighth-grade classmate. Sixty years later, John Pratt wrote in his memoir, “Alice Ball was brilliant, and went far in chemistry.” After her grandfather died in 1904, she moved back to Seattle with her family.

She grew up around chemicals. Her father, mother and aunt were also photographers and owned a photo studio in Seattle. Growing up, she probably helped out in the family studio, mixing fresh developers and preparing photographic plates. In her four years at the University of Washington, she earned two degrees: pharmaceutical chemistry (1912) and pharmacy (1914). She was elected to membership in Sigma Xi, the national honorary scientific society. Before graduating from UW, she co-published an article in a prestigious chemistry journal with her pharmacy instructor.

Upon graduation, two schools wooed her: a large university (University of California) and a small college (College of Hawaii). For whatever reason, she chose Hawaii. Perhaps from her first childhood stay here she preferred its mild climate or its racial tolerance. Within one year she earned her master’s degree in chemistry with her thesis on the chemical constituents of kava root.

Chemist/Instructor. Alice Ball arrived in Honolulu in June 1914, about the same time as the College’s new president, Arthur L. Dean. The president, who had a doctorate in chemistry from Harvard, became her advisor. After her graduation, she was hired as an assistant instructor in chemistry, becoming the first female African American chemist and instructor at the College of Hawaii. Between 1915 and 1916, she and President Dean co-taught chemistry classes at Manoa.

Researcher. During her time as a chemistry instructor at the college, Dr. Hollmann, Assistant Surgeon at Kalihi Hospital, asked Ball to solve a centuries-old problem for his patients with Hansen’s disease. Since the 14th century, chaulmoogra oil had been used by the Chinese and others to treat Hansen’s disease with inconsistent results. The ingested oil made patients very nauseous, limiting long-term use. Injections of the virtually insoluble oil were extremely painful. Researchers, chemists and pharmacologists working in some of the world’s most sophisticated and well-equipped laboratories had been stymied for centuries by how to make the active ingredients of chaulmoogra oil more therapeutic.

In a relative short time, Ball succeeded in extracting the ethyl esters of chaulmoogra oil, using a technique termed “Ball’s Method.” This enabled doctors, including Dr. Hollmann, to inject their patents with a more active and less painful form of chaulmoogra. The medical literature began reporting that Hansen disease patients were being discharged from hospitals—including Kalihi—and isolation facilities like Kalaupapa. Ball’s Method offered something additional to patients suffering from Hansen’s disease: hope.

Tragically, after her remarkable discovery, Ball became ill and returned to Seattle where she died on Dec. 31, 1916, at the age of 24. She never received honor in her lifetime for her accomplishments.

However, Alice Ball did receive some posthumous recognition from the College of Hawaii. In 1917, a resolution by students and faculty recognized her as “an example to all her companions and associates at the College.” In February 2000, some 85 years later, a bronze plaque was placed at the Bachman Hall chaulmoogra tree in recognition of her and her work and her portrait now hangs in the Science and Technology wing of Hamilton Library.