Alice Ball died young, at the age of 24. But she left a profound mark on the scientific world. This African-American scientist developed the first and only effective treatment for a harsh disease. She is the chemist who discovered the cure for leprosy.
Leprosy, a serious disease
Born July 24, 1892 in Seattle, Washington. Entered the University of Washington to study chemistry. After graduating she received a scholarship to study at the University of Hawaii, where she pursued a master’s degree in chemistry. In 1915 she became the first woman and the first African-American in the United States to earn a master’s degree in chemistry. She was offered a teaching and research position and, at the age of 23, became the institution’s first female chemistry instructor.
In the laboratory, Ball worked intensively on developing a successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy. At the beginning of the 20th century there was little information on how to cure it. Thousands suffered from its effects and the stigma it caused. In those years, leprosy was rife in the Hawaiian Islands.
She, then, isolated chemical compounds from the seed oil of the chaulmoogra tree. She created the first water-soluble remedy, easy to inject, easily absorbed into the bloodstream. Her method became known as the “Ball Method” used in her work
more than 30 years until sulfone antibiotics were introduced.
Leprosy is caused by the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae. It destroys the body’s ability to feel pain. It can cause a person to inadvertently injure himself and his wounds can become infected. Ulcers develop on the skin which, if left untreated, can lead to complications, wounds and disfigurement. In certain parts of the world it still exists.
The chemist who discovered the cure for leprosy was unable to see the success of her work. She died at the age of 24, apparently of tuberculosis.
Chemist Arthur L. Dean continued his work and published the results. His treatment was continued until the 1940s with great success. The University of Hawaii did not recognize his work for almost 90 years. In 2000, it finally honored him with a commemorative plaque.
Not only did he achieve the first useful treatment for leprosy. He also overcame the racial and gender barriers of the time. How much would he have achieved if he died so young?