Monday, September 18, 2023

Alice Ball, Chemist


Alice Ball was born in 1892 in Seattle, Washington, one of four children. Her father was a lawyer and her mother a photographer. Her grandfather was one of the first black photographers to perfect the daguerreotype method of photography. Alice came from an accomplished family.


When she was eleven, Alice’s family relocated to Honolulu for her grandfather’s health. After his death, they moved back to Seattle and Alice continued her education there. She graduated and went to the University of Washington where she studied chemistry. She got her bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical chemistry and went on to get her master’s, which she finished in two years.


Alice published an article with her pharmacy professor in the Journal of American Chemical Society, “Benzoylations in Ether Solution.” The article was ten pages long and an amazing accomplishment for any woman, even more so for a black woman.


University of Hawaii Manoa - Modern day
Photo by Travis.Thurston, Wikimedia Commons

She received many offers of scholarships at noted Universities such as University of California Berkeley, but decided to pursue another master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Hawaii. During her studies, she focused on the chaulmoogra oil and the use of its chemical properties.


For years, chaulmoogra oil had been used to treat Hansen’s disease (leprosy). The mixed results were discouraging. When used as a topical, the stickiness of the oil made it difficult to apply. When injected, the oil clumped under the skin and then formed painful blisters, bubbling the skin. The oil had an acrid taste and caused most to vomit it back up when they attempted to ingest it. However, the chaulmoogra oil was the most effective treatment for Hansen’s disease.


Up to this time, when a person was diagnosed with Hansen’s or leprosy, they were arrested and taken to Molokai, one of the Hawaiian islands. Dr. Harry T. Hollmann was one of the few physicians working with these people and trying to find a remedy. He reached out to Alice Ball because his work went along with the thesis she was developing in her master’s program.


Chaulmoogra seed
Photo by Anoopmail
Wikimedia Commons

Alice was only 23, when she found a technique that isolated the ethyl ester compounds from the fatty acids of the chaumoogra oil found in the seeds. This technique helped her make the oil injectable and absorbable in the body. She called her method the “Ball Method.” This was the first time they had a treatment that didn’t cause a terrible aftertaste or leave abscesses.


Alice became the first black woman to graduate from the University of Hawaii and then the first to teach at the university. She became ill and moved back to Seattle and died in 1916 at the young age of 24. Her death certificate reads that she died of tuberculosis, but most believe she died from a chemical accident in a lab as she was demonstrating the proper use of a gas mask for safety during a chlorine gas attack.


Arthur L. Dean, the president of the University of Hawaii, and a chemist, continued Alice’s work after her death. He published her findings but claimed them as his own, calling it the "Dean Method." He gave no credit to Alice Ball even though the work had been hers.


Kalaupapa Village, Molokai, Hawaii
Photo by Alden Cornell, Wikimedia Commons

With the cure Alice discovered, people who had Hansen’s disease were able to leave the colonies and return to their jobs and families. Over 8,000 people had their lives changed because of her discovery. The treatment was the best in use until the discovery of the sulfonamide drugs in the 1940s. 


In 1922, Dr. Harry Hollmann, who had been working with Alice, published a paper crediting her with the work she had done on the cure for Hansen’s. It still took years for her to be acknowledged as the person who did the work and developed the cure. 


In 2000, a bronze plaque was placed by a chaulmoogra tree on the campus of the University of Hawaii to honor Alice’s life and work. In 2007, she was awarded the University’s Regents’ Medal of Distinction. 


Alice Ball was an amazing person, who stands out for her life and work. She overcame many obstacles and sadly was a life cut short. Have you read about Alice Ball or the Ball Method? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning, best-selling author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats and dog, and spend time with her family. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website:


  1. Thank you for posting today. I never have heard of Alice Ball but I have not had a reason to study leprosy or its' cures.

    1. Thank you, Connie. I found her story while doing some research and was fascinated by her.

  2. Nancy, I found your article about Alice Ball fascinating. In 1983, I went with a Christian singles group to Molokai where we toured the site of the colony where those diagnosed with Hansen's disease had been taken for centuries. I learned about Father Damien, but I don't remember Alice Ball's name mentioned. There were still a few people at the colony who took us around the site, one of them who'd had Hansen's disease. Some of his fingertips were missing, but he'd also been fortunate enough to have been cured by the medicine that I now know was due to Alice Ball's research. Truly an amazing story! Thanks for posting!

    1. Donna, that is amazing. I didn't know you could tour Molokai and the colonies. Thank you for sharing that. Alice Ball was truly gifted and it's sad that her life was cut short.