Alice Ball was 23 years old when she devised the method to extract the active principles of the most used treatment against leprosy before the discovery of antibiotics. Unfortunately, her premature death almost had her forgotten.
Alice Augusta Ball was born in Seattle in 1892, in a humble but fighting family. Her grandfather had been an important abolitionist and photographer, the work of which focused on portraying the great black leaders of his time. It was a hard time for women and more specifically for African Americans. In Seattle, 1910, 84% of black women with a profession worked as domestic servants. But as I said, Alice came from a family of fighters, so in 1910 she entered the University of Washington, where she graduated in Pharmaceutical Chemistry. After college, she accepted a scholarship to study a master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Hawaii, where he was subsequently hired as a chemistry teacher. The fighter Alice had just become the first African American woman to get that position.
While studying the master’s degree, Alice worked on the extraction of active ingredients from the root of kava (native plant of Polynesia). Her work caught the attention of Harry T. Hollman, a US public health officer and surgery assistant at Kalihi Hospital. Hollman proposed to Alice to apply her extraction technique to obtain the active ingredients of chaulmoogra oil, and improve the treatment of leprosy.
What is leprosy?
Hansen’s disease or leprosy is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, a relative of the one that produce tuberculosis. Leprosy is a medical condition that affects the skin, peripheral nerves and mucous membranes of the nose, throat and eyes. The destruction of the peripheral nerves together with the degeneration of the tissues can lead to deformation of the limbs.
In many cultures, leprosy has been linked to the stigma of incurable disease and the image of a progressive disfigurement of the patient’s body. Lepers were considered dirty people; they were taken from their homes and sent to “leper colonies”. It is currently known that leprosy is a slightly contagious disease and that effective treatment is available, which applied in time allows to eliminate the bacteria without irreversible damage.
And what is chaulmoogra oil?
For centuries, in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine, an oil made from chaulmoogra seeds, a kind of tree that grows in Asia, was used as the main treatment for leprosy. The success of this treatment was moderate. Applied to the skin it provided some relief but did not penetrate enough to have a decent effect. It had a horrible taste, which is why it was not administered orally. In addition, being an oil (insoluble in water), if it was injected it caused a lot of suffering to the patients, who described the injections as “fire burning under the skin” and that in many cases ended up dispensing with the treatment.
And this is where our brave Alice comes into play. With her ability in pharmaceutical chemistry, she managed to extract the active principles of chaulmoogra oil: chaulmoogric acid and hydnocarpic acid. With them she created the first water-soluble remedy (and therefore easily injectable) to relieve and treat leprosy patients. He was 23 years old.
This method was not a cure, but it was a great relief for leprosy patients and the only effective treatment until the first antibiotics for the disease were developed in the 40s.
The Ball Method
Unfortunately, Alice Ball’s career ended shortly after her great discovery. She inhaled chlorine gas by accident during a demonstration of anti-gas masks in the laboratory. She then returned to Seattle for treatment but after a few months she died, probably due to the effects of chlorine gas inhalation.
Alice couldn’t see her method in application or all the improvement she brought. Moreover, she was almost forgotten because of Arthur L. Dean. Dean continued the investigation and made huge extractions of chaulmoogric acid and hydnocarpic acid, trying to baptize this technique as the Dean method.
Luckily, in 1922, Hollman (who in first place asked Alice to extract the components of the oil of chaulmoogra) published an article in which he stated that: “After considerable experimental work, it was Miss Ball who solved the problem. The method is known as the Ball’s method.”
Even so, Alice Ball’s name went unnoticed for decades until in 2000 the University of Hawaii honored her by putting a plate with her name next to the only chaulmoogra tree that existed on campus.