February 2, 2019
The National Society of Black Physicists honors Alice Augusta Ball. Professor Ball developed an injectable oil extract that was the most effective treatment for leprosy during the early 20th century.
Alice Augusta Ball (July 24, 1892 – December 31, 1916) was an African American chemist who developed an injectable oil extract that was the most effective treatment for leprosy during the early 20th century. She was the first woman and first African American to receive a master's degree from the University of Hawaii, and she was also the university's first female chemistry professor.
At the University of Hawaii, Ball investigated the chemical makeup and active principle of Piper methysticum (kava) for her master's thesis. Because of this work, she was contacted by Dr Harry T. Hollmann at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii, who needed an assistant for his research into the treatment of leprosy.
At the time, leprosy or Hansen's Disease was a highly stigmatised disease with virtually no chance of recovery. People diagnosed with leprosy were exiled to the Hawaiian island of Molokai, with the expectation that they would die there. The best treatment available was chaulmoogra oil, from the seeds of the Hydnocarpus wightianus tree from the Indian subcontinent, which had been used medicinally from as early as the 1300s. However, the treatment was not very effective, and every method of application was associated with problems. It was too sticky to be used effectively as a topical and as an injection the viscous consistency of the oil caused it to clump under the skin and form blisters, rather than being absorbed. These blisters formed in perfect rows and made it look "as if the patient's skin had been replaced by bubble wrap". Ingesting the oil was not effective either because it had an acrid taste that usually made the patients vomit upon attempting to swallow it.
At the young age of 23, Ball developed a technique that would make the oil injectable and absorbable by the body. Her technique involved isolating ester compounds from the oil and chemically modifying them, resulting in a substance that retained the oil's therapeutic properties and was absorbed by the body when injected. Unfortunately, due to her untimely death, Ball was unable to publish her revolutionary findings. Arthur L. Dean, a chemist and the president of the University of Hawaii, continued her work, published the findings, and began producing large quantities of the injectable chaulmoogra extract. Dean published the findings without giving credit to Ball, and named the technique after himself, until Ball's supervisor Dr Hollmann spoke out about this.
In 1920, a Hawaii physician reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that 78 patients had been discharged from Kalihi Hospital by the board of health examiners after treatment with injections of Ball's modified chaulmoogra oil. The isolated ethyl ester remained the preferred treatment for Hansen's disease until sulfonamide drugs were developed in the 1940s.