The fascinating story of Alice Ball, the American scientist who developed the first effective treatment for leprosy

La fascinante historia de Alice Ball, la científica estadounidense que desarrolló el primer tratamiento efectivo contra la lepra


Although she died at the young age of 24, Alice Ball left a deep mark on the scientific world.

African-American chemistry developed the first and only effective treatment for the thousands of people who in 1915 suffered from Hansen’s diseasebetter known as leprosy.

But that’s not all: Ball also set an important precedent for women interested in the complex branches of science, which in those years were predominantly led by white men.

At BBC Mundo we wanted to review its history and here we tell it to you.

successful college career

Alice Augusta Ball was born on July 24, 1892 in Seattle, Washington, in a middle-class family.

His mother, Laura, was a photographer and his father, James P. Ball, a lawyer. He had two older brothers, Robert and William, and a younger sister, Addie.

He attended Seattle High School, graduating with distinctions in science in 1910. Later he entered the University of Washington to study Chemistry.

Four years later, in 1914, he obtained his degrees in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and Pharmacy Sciences. As a young student, she stood out among her peers by co-authoring a ten-page article in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Thanks to his prominent career, after graduating he received a scholarship to study at the University of Hawaii, where he received a master’s degree in chemistry.

In 1915, she was the first woman and the first African-American in the United States to earn a master’s degree in chemistry.

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Then, the University of Hawaii offered her a teaching and research position and, at just 23 years old, she became the institution’s first female chemistry instructor.

“Ball Method”

In the laboratory, Ball worked hard to develop a successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy.

Although the disease is believed to have affected humanity for at least 4.000 years, at the beginning of the 20th century there was little information about how to cure it.

In this way, thousands of people around the world suffered the complex effects of leprosy, without obtaining adequate treatment.

Furthermore, those who suffered from it were deeply stigmatized. Many were forced to live in isolation until their death.

Mycobacterium leprae.

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Leprosy is caused by the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae.

The only antidote given to some patients was an oil from the seeds of the chaulmoogra Tree, used for centuries in Chinese and Indian medicine.

But its success was moderate and many lepers gave up taking it because, if injected, it was extremely painful and tended to turn the stomach when taken.

Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, who worked at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii, specializing in leprosy patients, asked Alice to help find a solution. In those years, leprosy was rife in the Hawaiian Islands.

She then isolated the chemical compounds of the oil (the ethyl esters of fatty acids) and with them created the first water-soluble remedy, easy to inject, since it could be easily absorbed into the bloodstream.

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Thus, the scientist achieved a successful method to alleviate the symptoms of leprosy —later known as the “Ball Method”—, which was used on thousands of infected people for more than 30 years until sulfone antibiotics were introduced.


What is leprosy?

It is a disease that has affected humanity for thousands of years and yet, although many people are surprised by it, it is still present.

Leprosy is caused by bacillus Mycobacterium lepraewhich is transmitted by droplets from the nose and mouth of infected people.

The infection mainly affects the peripheral nerves and the skin, and the patient can have serious complications such as disfigurement, deformities and disability, either due to neurological damage or blindness.

The leprosy bacteria destroy the body’s ability to feel pain which can cause a person to inadvertently injure themselves and their wounds can become infected.

leprosyleprosy

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Nerve damage causes physical disability in leprosy.

Skin changes can also occur causing ulcers which, if left untreated, can lead to complications, wounds, and disfigurement of the face and limbs.

Early diagnosis and timely and appropriate treatment are two fundamental pillars for disease control.

But for hundreds of years leprosy has been a disease misunderstood by society, according to experts.

In parts of the world, leprosy sufferers continue to be feared, and long-standing perceptions of the disorder as a “biblical curse”


death and legacy

Unfortunately, Alice Ball could not see the impact of her work because in December 1916, when she was only 24 years old, she passed away. The young she had not even been able to publish her findings.

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Although the cause of his death is not clear, it is said that it could have been the inhalation of toxic gases during his work in the laboratory or tuberculosis.

Chemist Arthur L. Dean continued his work and published the results. In 1918 it was reported that 79 patients from Kalihi Hospital had been discharged thanks to this treatment, which continued to be used until the 1940s.

chaulmoogra treechaulmoogra tree

Getty Images
Alice Ball isolated the chemical compounds in the oil from the seeds of the chaulmoogra tree.

Although the University of Hawaii did not recognize his work for nearly 90 years, in 2000 it paid tribute to him by placing a commemorative plaque on the only chaulmoogra tree on campus.

His name is also registered with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine alongside people like Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie.

The scientist Paul Wermager, who has done extensive research on Ball’s work, has highlighted that the young woman not only achieved the first useful treatment for leprosy, but also overcame the racial and gender barriers of the time.

Many of his followers today wonder how many other finds he could have led if he had not died so young.


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