Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Alice Ball, Chemist

Written by Jill M. Staake

Alice Augusta Ball, 1915
Born: July 24, 1892, Seattle, Washington
Died: December 31, 1916, Seattle, Washington

S.T.E.A.M. Powers

  • Developed the chemistry behind the first modern treatment for leprosy
  • First woman and African-American to receive a Master's Degree from the University of Hawaii

Her Story

You've most likely heard of leprosy, the chronic infection also called Hansen's Disease that causes skin lesions and more. You've probably even heard of Moloka'i, the Hawaiian island where lepers were isolated to die a miserable death. But chances are good you've never heard of chaulmoogra oil, and chances are even better you didn't know that a woman named Alice Ball was responsible for the chemistry involved in making this oil the first effective treatment for leprosy,

A Born Chemist
Alice Ball was born in 1892, into a family in which chemistry already had its importance. Her father and particularly her grandfather (James Bell, Sr.) were photographers, and young Alice likely spent time in their darkrooms watching as chemical baths brought forth pictures seemingly from nowhere. It was probably no surprise to her family when 18-year-old Alice graduated Seattle High School with high grades in the sciences, and chose to attend the University of Washington to study chemistry. By the time she graduated four years later, Alice had Bachelor's Degrees in both pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy. With scholarship offers from both UC Berkeley and the University of Hawaii, Alice chose to continue her studies in Honolulu.

Hawaii wasn't entirely new for Alice. She and her family had lived there for a year when she was younger, in the hopes of helping her grandfather's painful rheumatoid arthritis. He died only a year later, though, and the family returned to Washington. Alice must have remembered that year in Hawaii with affection, and now embarked on her continuing education there. While receiving her Master's Degree in chemistry, she was also quietly breaking down barriers - she became the first woman and and the first African-American to receive this advanced degree from the University of Hawaii.

While working on her Master's thesis about the "Chemical Constituents of Piper Methysticum" (kava), Alice received a request from Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, an assistant surgeon at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii. Hollmann was working with chaulmoogra oil, long used as a traditional remedy for treating leprosy in China and India. Although it showed some promise, there were many barriers to making this treatment practical, and Hollman hoped Alice could help him figure out the chemistry involved.

Leprosy sufferers in Hawaii. Photo via NPS Archives.
Hope For The Hopeless
Leprosy and Hawaii might seem like an odd mix, but Hawaii was just one of many places at the time that mandated that infected persons be isolated from the rest of the population. Though it might not seem like a hardship to be left marooned on a Hawaiian island, the leper colony at Kalaupapa was no paradise. The spit of land was surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean, and divided from the rest of the island by towering and impenetrable cliffs. Infected people were left there to die, and for many years they had no shelters other than what they could build themselves, and food provided every week or so by boat from the mainland. It was a miserable existence for people already suffering from a miserable disease, and it was widely accepted that colonies like these were not an acceptable way of treating the ill.

Hydnocarpus wrightianus
Photo by Anoopmail via Wikipedia
So doctors were excited to learn of chaulmoogra oil, which came from the nut of the Hydnocarpus wightianus tree and seemed to have real potential for helping relieve the suffering of those with leprosy. The problem was, they had no good way to administer the oil effectively. Applying it topically didn't seem to do much good. Giving it by mouth general resulted in intense nausea and burning in the stomach. And injecting it under the skin only created large abscesses. The oils were so dense that they were unable to mix with the water in the body, and instead merely stayed under the surface, often causing the patient more pain rather than helping.

Dr. Hollman knew if he could find a way to make the injectable version more water-soluble, chaulmoogra oil had real potential to help patients. Other chemists had tried, to no avail. So Alice set to work, attempting to isolate the ethyl esters of the fatty acids in the oil. At age 23, Alice developed the "Ball Method", which would allow chaulmoogra oil to be injected and absorbed by the body. In the following years, pharmaceutical companies processed using the Ball Method and created excellent injectable medications that returned many leprosy patience to such good health they were allowed to leave their isolation colonies and return home to their families.

It was an astounding achievement, for a chemist of any gender or race - but as often happened to female scientists, it was to be many years before her contributions would be acknowledged.

A Life Cut Short
Medical professionals prepare
chaulmoogra oil for injection in 1928
By 1916, Alice was beginning to show signs of illness. Eventually, these were severe enough that she resigned her position at the University of Hawaii (where she had become the first African-American chemistry professor), and returned to Seattle. History seems uncertain what illness ailed her; her death certificate lists "tuberculosis", but oddly, it was altered. A newspaper at the time indicated she might have accidentally inhaled chlorine gas while performing experiments in her classroom, which could also have led to her death. No matter the cause, a very promising young scientist was dead at age 24.

This tragedy was compounded by the way her research was treated after her death. Her mentor, University of Hawaii President Dr. Arthur Lyman Dean, published her research under his own name, even calling the process Alice invented the "Dean Method". It was 90 years before Alice's work was recognized. In 2000, the University of Hawaii placed a plaque to honor her on the school's chaulmoogra tree, and her contributions were finally brought to the attention of the wider world.

Today, leprosy is curable with a regular drug regimen, and leper colonies are no longer in use in most of the world. We also know that leprosy isn't nearly as contagious as once feared, though in some parts of the world it continues to pose a problem. In remote areas where drugs aren't readily available, some doctors still use the Ball Method to prepare chaulmoogra oil to help their leprosy patients. The work of a brilliant young chemist, cut short in her prime, still has the ability to improve lives one hundred years later - a legacy worth admiring.

Learn More:

No comments:

Post a Comment