top of page

"The Ball Method"

February is Black History Month. Alice Augusta Ball (July 24, 1892 – December 31, 1916) was an African American chemist who developed the most effective treatment for leprosy during the early 20th century, known as “the Ball Method.” Ball was the first woman and first African American to earn a master's degree from the University of Hawaii, and was also the university's first female and African American chemistry professor.

Hansen's Disease, commonly known as leprosy, was a "stigmatized" disease with no chance of recovery. During Ball’s time, patients diagnosed with leprosy were isolated by exile to the Hawaiian island of Molokai. They would not return. But, Alice Ball changed all that. The best treatment available was chaulmoogra oil, from the seeds of the Hydnocarpus wightianus tree found on the subcontinent of India. But, the challenge was administering the oil without side effect. Ball, then twenty three (23) years old, developed a technique to “make the oil injectable and absorbable by the body.” However, due to her untimely death, Ball did not publish her groundbreaking findings. Another university chemist took credit for her work, published the findings and produced large quantities of the injectable extract. He even named Ball’s process after himself. He did not acknowledge this until he published a paper in 1922 giving the credit to Ball … and referring to the “Ball Method.” But, she still remained forgotten until her original research was found in the university archives in the 1970’s. (I have purposely not mentioned the scoundrel's name here so that he may be forgotten.)

But, as is and was common for so many African-American accomplishments, recognition has been slow. In 2000, former Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii, Mazie Hirono, declared February 29 "Alice Ball Day." (That’s right, only celebrated every four (4) years.) In 2007 the University Board of Regents posthumously honored Ball with a Medal of Distinction. In March 2016 Hawaiʻi Magazine placed Ball on its list of the most influential women in Hawaiian history. In 2018 a new park in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood was named after Ball. In 2019 the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine “added her name to the frieze atop its main building, along with Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie, in recognition of their contributions to science and global health research”.

This month, a short film, “The Ball Method” will premiere at the Pan African Film Festival in her memory and honor. _________ Information largely from Biography and Wikipedia.

bottom of page