The story of Alice Ball is perfect for the 2022 Black History Month’s theme of Black Health and Wellness. Alice’s achievements as a Black chemist in the late 19th and early 20th century were extraordinary, even more so considering the social barriers and scientific limitations of the time. Her contribution to human medicine - the ‘Ball Method’ - was not really fully recognized until the late 1970s, over 60 years later and long after it had been co-opted by others.
Alice Ball’s life is noteworthy in a number of ways. She achieved her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in pharmacy and chemistry, respectively, from the University of Hawaii in the early 1900s. She was the University’s (then, the College of Hawaii) first female and first Black graduate student. Her amazing upward trajectory continued when Alice was, in turn, made a chemistry professor at the school.
Her studies of chaulmoogra tree oil resulted in the ‘Ball Method’ treatment for reducing symptoms of leprosy - a terrible and contagious disease that not only disfigured and killed people for centuries but also created populations of ‘lepers’ exiled from society. Hawaii was no exception and forced sufferers into a leper colony on the Kalaupapa peninsula of Molokai, Hawaii, until, shockingly, the late 1960s. Alice addressed a disease that terrified generations.
It is unlikely Alice realized the full import of her 1915 discovery or how it contributed to future developments and an eventual cure for leprosy. She died only a year later, in 1916, of an unknown illness. In her short 24 years; however, Alice Ball was extraordinary. She personally and professionally excelled in spite of innumerable barriers, and erasing her relative anonymity is just one more reason to celebrate Alice Augusta Ball this Black History Month.