Alice Ball, a Black Woman, Discovered Leprosy Treatment

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Feb 27, 2020

In 1915, a 23-year-old graduate student from Seattle named Alice Ball developed a life-saving treatment for Hansen’s disease, better known as leprosy, while working on her master’s thesis at the University of Hawaiʻi. In addition to being a woman chemist in the early 20th century, Ball was Black. For more than a century, her achievement has gone unknown, but now there’s a new short about her called "The Ball Method," which premiered this February at the Pan African Film Festival.

Written and directed by Dagmawi Abebe, who was born in Ethiopia and grew up in Virginia, the short focuses on Ball when she made her scientific discovery while teaching at the University of Hawaiʻi. "I was reading a book on 1800 entrepreneurs, Black entrepreneurs in the West, and there was a paragraph about her grandfather [who] was a photographer," Abebe told Science Friday in an interview published on February 7. "And there was a small sentence about Alice Ball, and it said that his granddaughter found the treatment for leprosy. And since I have a physics background, I was really interested in that, and I started doing more research."

Abebe eventually discovered that Ball was unknown because someone had stolen her credit. What Ball did that no one before her was able to, was to turn leprosy’s only treatment at the time, chaulmoogra oil, into a water-soluble formula that could be easily injected, Natural Science explained in a profile published February 26. Because Ball died the following year, she never published her results, which allowed Arthur Dean, who ran the chemistry department at that time, to put his name on the method instead.      

Thanks to Ball’s mentor at the university, Harry Hollman, who published the paper and suggested it be called "The Ball Method," her name was reinstated, according to Abebe. Fast forward to the new millennium, Abebe told Science Friday that the University of Hawai’i put a plaque under the campus’ chaulmoogra tree in 2000, and the former science and technology librarian at the university, Paul Wermager, created a small museum in the library to honor her.

To learn more about Ball and the short, view the trailer above or read Abebe and producer Grace Lee’s interview in Science Friday.