As a young scientist, Alice Ball was brilliant and ambitious, and would go on to bring hope to a category of people condemned to a life of suffering and isolation.
But today our hero is barely remembered — maybe because she was a “she,” and African-American, and the year was 1916.
Paul Wermager first got wind of the story when he was working in a research library at the University of Hawaii.
“I was working at the science and technology reference desk and somebody came and asked a simple question: Do you know if there's a chaulmoogra tree on campus?” said Wermager, now retired.
That chaulmoogra tree was central to a discovery that now seems obscure, but at the time was a huge deal. And the person who made it was Alice Augusta Ball.
CENTRAL DISTRICT ORIGINS
Ball grew up in Seattle’s Central District. Her grandfather was an early photographer — one of the few black experts at a technique called daguerreotype — which Wermager imagines awakened Alice’s interest in chemistry.
She would go on to study pharmacy at the University of Washington, where she showed huge promise.
“She actually got two articles co-published, before she even got her master's degree, in the most prestigious chemistry journal in the world. So that struck me as, wow, this person is pretty amazing,” Wermager said.
Alice Ball headed to what was then called the College of Hawaii for graduate school, destined to encounter that chaulmoogra tree. The thing that brought tree and chemist together was leprosy.
“It was considered a death sentence. Not only that but then you were taken away from your family. And in Hawaiian and Polynesian and Asian (societies), family is the most important thing. Once you lose that, your dead in some ways,” Wermager said.
PROGRESS ON AN ANCIENT AFFLICTION
James Harnisch has been treating patients with leprosy for about a half-century. He runs the Hansen’s disease clinic at Seattle Harborview Medical Center. (Hansen’s Disease is another name for leprosy).
He says the disease’s stigma goes back all the way to biblical times.
“With the almost terrifying skin and facial deformities, all of that tends to make somebody with leprosy an outcast,” he said.
He says for most of history, people with the disease were simply isolated and left to die.
“There was no treatment at that point in time at all, so it was a matter of just offering care while you’re watching the disease progress to destroy the face, destroy the hands, the arms," Harnisch said. "It was a very sad situation.”
There was one folk remedy for leprosy, though it was only somewhat effective: oil extracted from the seeds of the chaulmoogra tree.
It helped some people. But it had drawbacks.
“People were applying it both to the lesions as a salve as well as injecting it in an oil-based preparation," he said. "The injections were extraordinarily painful. But it was observed that people who used chaulmoogra oil actually showed some benefit."
REFINING A FOLK REMEDY
So the challenge was to come up with an extract of the oil’s active ingredients that could be mixed in water and injected without pain. A local surgeon in Hawaii took up the problem, and contacted Alice Ball for help.
It’s hard to understate how daunting that assignment was. Alice Ball was just 23 and fresh out of undergraduate college. And, of course, this was late 1915, when there were no modern centrifuges or gas chromatography.
But there was a brand new, still obscure method being developed in Europe, and Alice Ball found out about it.
“People were struggling with what do you do with this oil which, if you let it sit, it just hardens into, like, lard. But using alcohol you make it into what’s called an ethyl ester. Then it becomes water-soluble, and that was the breakthrough that she made,” said Paul Wermager of the University of Hawaii.
It was the first practical, injectable extract of chaulmoogra oil, meaning that for the first time in human history, there was a dependable, effective treatment for this feared and ancient disease.
“People who did finally get the injections did show remarkable improvements," Wermager said. "I’ve found photographs, and they’re just startling. The person looks like, really, a different person.”
Chaulmoogra oil was not a cure — that would come with new drugs in the 1940s. But James Harnisch says it gave a group of doomed people hope for the first time.
“You have to understand, she was doing this before women had the right to vote," James Harnisch said. "This is amazing. And again, she was an African-American woman. Phenomenal that she could get this far."
So where is Alice Ball in the firmament of pioneering scientists? Where’s the statue and the biopic and the endowed chair of chemistry or whatever?
Well, that would have been a great question to ask Arthur Dean. He was president of the College of Hawaii, and he took up Alice Ball’s work. The thing is, people assumed it was Dean, the white man, who had the breakthrough. And he accepted the credit that really should have gone to the black female prodigy.
“So then (Dean’s) name became attached to this breakthrough with chaulmoogra, and people forgot about Alice,” Wermager lamented.
A LIFE CUT SHORT
And it gets worse. This should have been just the opening to a brilliant scientific career for Alice Ball. Instead, at age 24, she had an accident in the classroom. According to multiple newspaper accounts, says Wermager, Ball was exposed to toxic chlorine gas, and got very ill.
Ball died before she could watch her research transform so many lives, and without getting proper credit.
It wasn’t until the last couple of decades that her name has resurfaced, thanks partly to Paul Wermager. He nudged the the University of Hawaii to honor Ball, and he personally funded a scholarship in her name. These days he’s retired, but still working busily to write Alice Ball’s biography.
“I never had a sister when I grew up, and I always kind of wanted a sister,” Wermager said. “So I have kind of adopted her as my sister, and I only want the very best for her, because she was so ignored. And you know, that’s a wrong.”
UN-ERASING ALICE BALL
For its part, the University of Washington has not memorialized this extraordinary alumna. One UW employee, Sarah Guthrie of the pharmacy school, is planning her own gift in Alice’s name, to fund women-of-color junior faculty.
But over the summer, Alice Ball did get a measure of recognition in Seattle, thanks to third-grader Jesse Ballnik.
Her mother, Jamie Clausen, says Jesse learned about Alice Ball in a book called "Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls 2." She created a YouTube video and launched a campaign to convince the Seattle parks department to name a small park after Alice Ball.
“There is a new park opening up next to the Greenwood library,” Jesse said on the video. “We think it would be wonderful if that park could be named after Alice Ball so kids could remember that learning can change lives, and that learning can look like all of us.”
The push succeeded. Alice Augusta Ball is now the namesake of a park in the city where she was born. It’s taken 100 years, but this pioneering black woman chemist is finally taking her place in the history of science, and in bedtime stories for rebel girls everywhere.