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Meet Alice Ball – The pharmaceutical Chemist who developed the first effective treatment for Leprosy
This is Alice Ball, the pharmaceutical chemist who in 1919 developed a medical treatment for Leprosy and gave hope to millions. Her drug was the premier treatment for Leprosy until the 1940’s when antibiotics were developed. Before Alice, Leprosy was considered a hopeless disease. In the US people found to have Leprosy were forcibly removed from their homes and detained indefinitely in remote colonies. Alice’s treatment allowed hundreds of detainees to at last be paroled from the detention centres and go home to their families.
Born in 1892, Alice is the granddaughter of Iconic photographer JP Ball. She graduated from the University of Washington and the University of Hawaii with degrees in pharmacy and pharmaceutical chemistry. Her master’s thesis was titled The Chemical Constituents of Piper Methysticum and involved extracting active ingredients from kava root. Her chemistry work here was so impressive that she was enlisted by US Public Health Officer Dr Harry Hollmann to work her magic with chaulmoogra oil.
For centuries, Indian and Chinese health practitioners have been using chaulmoogra oil to treat leprosy but with limited success. The oil could be applied topically however that would mean it wouldn’t penetrate deep enough into the body; at best, it provided sufferers with some relief. Oil is not soluble in water therefore injecting was extremely difficult near impossible. Patients described the oil injections as ‘burning like fire through the skin’
This is where Alice comes in. She was enlisted to use her unique skills and techniques to extract the active ingredients from chaulmoogra oil. She isolated the chaulmoogric acid and hydnocarpic acid contained in the oil and created the first water soluble injectable treatment for leprosy. She managed to do something that had “thwarted researchers for years”.
Sadly she never lived to see it in use, during her teaching lab work she inhaled chlorine gas and become gravely ill. After her death, Dr Arthur L Dean finished and published her paper. He published it without giving her credit and titled the technique the Dean Method. Fortunately, Dr Henry Hollmann went on the record to set the record straight.
“After a great amount of experimental work, Miss Ball solved the problem for me….[this preparation is known as]……the Ball Method”
Alice was the first black person to earn a masters degree from the University of Hawaii. Although not a cure her treatment was a huge blow in the fight against leprosy. She gave hope to researchers and sufferers alike to hunt for more treatments and eventually find a cure. Eventually the cure for the disease was found in the 1940’s. This article is with thanks to Stanley Ali and Kathryn Takara. Two people who scoured the archives to uncover the truth about this woman. Without their work, nobody would know about Alice Ball, even the University of Hawaii were unaware. In 2000 she was honoured with a Chaulmoogra tree planted on campus and the Governor of Hawaii declared February 29th Alice Ball Day, she also received the University’s Medal of distinction.