A young girl in the 20’s of the 1900 in the USA; it takes luck, bravery and skills to do something memorable, even though history has a short memory and sometimes forgets what instead should be very much remembered and celebrated.

Alice Ball

Alice Ball, an Afro American girl born in Seattle in 1892 had the luck to be born in a middle class family. Her father, lawyer who manage a journal and her grandfather who was a renown photographer, one of the first Afro Americans able to use the daguerreotype. Mother and Father were photographers as well and maybe that passion for that new and complex art, which required chemical skill set amongst other things, raised an interest for science in the little Alice.

In 1902 all the family moved to Hawaii, looking for a better weather due to the poor conditions of the grandfather, whom died shortly after 2 years later. The Ball family came back to Seattle in 1905, where Alice terminated her studies and then got a degree inĀ  Washington first in pharmaceutical chemistry then in pharmacy. Alice was just 22 and two degrees in her pocket; she was a promising talented woman and she received many scholarships in many universities, one of which from the prestigious Berkeley University of California. She chose to go back to Hawaii and there, as a first woman and Afro American female, she graduated for her masters in Chemistry as well as became the first woman to teach the subject.

Below: Norwegian man of 24 years old suffering from leprosy. Lightpress on copper slab by Pierre Arents, 1886

It was the 1915. Still in the Hawaii, doctor Harry Hollmann was doing his best to treat patients affected by the Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy. The pathology was one of the incurable and most terrible ones of that time, even though the bacterium was isolated in 1873. The antibiotics were still not available and the patients seemed to benefit from a treatment based on the oil of chaulmoogra, derivative of tropical plants and commonly used in China and India. A correct method for it to be used was hard to find though as the substance was too sticky for a topical usage, too viscous to be injected and impossible to swallow for the terrible flavour that was inducing vomit. In order to solve the issue it was necessary to extract the active principle from the oil to easily inject it to the patients.

Molokai Island (Hawaii) or Island of the living dead were the leprous were confined

Hollmann turned to Alice who with her thesis had done a similar work with another plant. Ball accepted the challenge and in a year time, in between her lessons, she managed to make the active principles of the oil as water soluble hence easily injectable. The commitment and ability of Alice Ball led to a fundamental contribution to the cure of the leprosy: the extract of oil of chaulmoogra was the only cure for the terrible disease up until the 40’s, when the sulphonamides were then developed.

Below: woman affected by leprosy before and after the oil of chaulmoogra based cure

Unfortunately the young chemist did not enjoy the results of her success. She died on the 31st of December 1916, at the young age of 24, for suspected poisoning by chlorine gas which occurred during a demonstrative lesson in her university.

it is necessary to write down “suspected” as in her death certificate, certainly altered, it’s reported as tuberculosis

The death of the researcher leaves open ground to her colleagues Arthur Dean, who published the results of her work with his own name, without giving any credit to her. Only after a bit of time from Alice Ball’s death, doctor Hollmann tried to restore the truth, but his attempt did not have a huge success. Ninety years must be passing to get to the new millennium and see the young and unlucky girl recognised for what she did to the society, another one of those forgotten ones by the history of science.

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