The Chemist Alice Ball Pioneered a Treatment for Leprosy in 1915–and Then Others Stole the Credit for It

It’s bit­ter­sweet when­ev­er a pio­neer­ing, long over­looked female sci­en­tist is final­ly giv­en the recog­ni­tion she deserves, espe­cial­ly so when the sci­en­tist in ques­tion is a per­son of col­or.

Chemist Alice Ball’s youth and dri­ve — just 23 in 1915, when she dis­cov­ered a gen­tle, but effec­tive method for treat­ing lep­rosy — make her an excel­lent role mod­el for stu­dents with an inter­est in STEM.

But in a move that’s only shock­ing for its famil­iar­i­ty, an oppor­tunis­tic male col­league, Arthur Dean, fina­gled a way to claim cred­it for her work.

We’ve all heard the tales of female sci­en­tists who were inte­gral team play­ers on impor­tant projects, who ulti­mate­ly saw their role vast­ly down­played upon pub­li­ca­tion or their names left off of a pres­ti­gious award.

But Dean’s claim that he was the one who had dis­cov­ered an injectable water-sol­u­ble method for treat­ing lep­rosy with oil from the seeds of the chaul­moogra fruit is all the more galling, giv­en that he did so after Alice Ball’s trag­i­cal­ly ear­ly death at the age of 24, sus­pect­ed to be the result of acci­den­tal poi­son­ing dur­ing a class­room lab demon­stra­tion.

Not every­one believed him.

Ball, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii chem­istry department’s first Black female grad­u­ate stu­dent, and, sub­se­quent­ly, its first Black female chem­istry instruc­tor, had come to the atten­tion of Har­ry T. Holl­mann, a U.S. Pub­lic Health Offi­cer who shared her con­vic­tion that chaul­moogra oil might hold the key to treat­ing lep­rosy.

After her death in 1916, Holl­mann reviewed Dean’s pub­li­ca­tions regard­ing the high­ly suc­cess­ful new lep­rosy treat­ment then referred to as the Dean Method and wrote that he could not see “any improve­ment what­so­ev­er over the orig­i­nal [method] as worked out by Miss Ball:”

After a great amount of exper­i­men­tal work, Miss Ball solved the prob­lem for me by mak­ing the eth­yl esters of the fat­ty acids found in chaul­moogra oil.

Type “the Dean Method lep­rosy” into a search engine and you’ll be reward­ed with a sat­is­fy­ing wealth of Alice Ball pro­files, all of which go into detail regard­ing her dis­cov­ery of what became known as the Ball Method, in use until the 1940s.

Kath­leen M. Wong’s arti­cle on this trail­blaz­ing sci­en­tist in the Smith­son­ian Mag­a­zine delves into why Hollmann’s pro­fes­sion­al efforts to posthu­mous­ly con­fer cred­it where cred­it was due were insuf­fi­cient to secure Ball her right­ful place in sci­ence his­to­ry.

That began to change in the 1990s when Stan Ali, a retiree research­ing Black peo­ple in Hawaii, found his inter­est piqued by a ref­er­ence to a “young Negro chemist” work­ing on lep­rosy in The Samar­i­tans of Molokai.

Ali teamed up with Paul Wer­mager, a retired Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii librar­i­an, and Kathryn Wad­dell Takara, a poet and pro­fes­sor in the Eth­nic Stud­ies Depart­ment. Togeth­er, they began comb­ing over old sources for any pass­ing ref­er­ence to Ball and her work. They came to believe that her absence from the sci­en­tif­ic record owed to sex­ism and racism:

Dur­ing and just after her life­time, she was believed to be part Hawai­ian, not Black. (Her birth and death cer­tifi­cates list both Ball and her par­ents as white, per­haps to “make trav­el, busi­ness and life in gen­er­al eas­i­er,” accord­ing to the Hon­olu­lu Star-Bul­letin.) In 1910, Black peo­ple made up just 0.4 per­cent of Hawaiʻi’s pop­u­la­tion.

“When [the news­pa­pers] real­ized she was not part Hawai­ian, but [Black], they felt they had made an embar­rass­ing mis­take, for­get­ting about it and hop­ing it would go away,” Ali said. “It did for 75 years.”

Their com­bined efforts spurred the state of Hawaii to declare Feb­ru­ary 28 Alice Ball Day. The Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii installed a com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque near a chaul­moogra tree on cam­pus. Her por­trait hangs in the university’s Hamil­ton Library, along­side a posthu­mous­ly award­ed Medal of Dis­tinc­tion.

(“Mean­while,” as Car­lyn L. Tani dry­ly observes in Hon­olu­lu Mag­a­zine, “Dean Hall on the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawai‘i Mānoa cam­pus stands as an endur­ing mon­u­ment to Arthur L. Dean.)

Fur­ther afield, the Lon­don School of Hygiene and Trop­i­cal Med­i­cine cel­e­brat­ed its 120th anniver­sary by adding Ball’s, Marie Sklodowska-Curie’s and Flo­rence Nightingale’s names to a frieze that had pre­vi­ous­ly hon­ored 23 emi­nent men.

And now, the God­moth­er of Punk Pat­ti Smith has tak­en it upon her­self to intro­duce Ball to an even wider audi­ence, after run­ning across a ref­er­ence to her while con­duct­ing research for her just released A Book of Days.

As Smith notes in an inter­view with Numéro:

Things have real­ly changed. I think we are liv­ing in a very beau­ti­ful peri­od of time because there are so many female artists, poets, sci­en­tists, and activists. Through books espe­cial­ly, we are redis­cov­er­ing and valu­ing the women who have been unjust­ly for­got­ten in our his­to­ry. Dur­ing my research, I came across a young black sci­en­tist who lived in Hawaii in the 1920s. At that time, there was a big lep­er colony in Hawaii. She had dis­cov­ered a treat­ment using the oil from the seeds of a tree to relieve the pain and allow patients to see their friends and fam­i­ly. Her name was Alice Ball, and she died at just 24 after a ter­ri­ble chem­i­cal acci­dent dur­ing an exper­i­ment. Her research was tak­en up by a pro­fes­sor who removed her name from the study to take full cred­it. It is only recent­ly that peo­ple have dis­cov­ered that she was the one who did the work.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Joce­lyn Bell Bur­nell Changed Astron­o­my For­ev­er; Her Ph.D. Advi­sor Won the Nobel Prize for It

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

How the Female Sci­en­tist Who Dis­cov­ered the Green­house Gas Effect Was For­got­ten by His­to­ry

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Per­son to Win Twice, and the Only Per­son in His­to­ry to Win in Two Dif­fer­ent Sci­ences


- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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