Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Madame CJ Walker—the list of women typically mentioned during Black History Month is incredibly short. But this year, CLUTCH will celebrate the achievements of Black women you may not have ever heard about.
Next up: Alice Augusta Ball
Born July 24, 1892 in Seattle, Washington, Alice Augusta Ball was an American chemist and researcher whose breakthrough leprosy treatment was widely used well after her death.
Ball grew up in a middle-class household in Seattle, her father, James Presley Ball, was a newspaper editor, photographer, and lawyer. Her grandfather, James Ball Sr., was also a famous Black photographer. Ball’s grandfather moved his family to Hawaii in 1903, but after his death in 1905, they returned to Seattle.
Back in her hometown, Alice attended Seattle High School and excelled in science. She graduated from High School in 1910 and enrolled in the University of Washington to study chemistry. Ball double majored in both pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy, and threw herself into research. While at the University of Washington, Ball published a paper in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society, and upon obtaining her degree, she was offered scholarships to both UC Berkeley and the University of Hawaii.
Ball chose to attend the University of Hawaii and pursued a master’s degree in chemistry. When she graduated in 1915, Ball became the first woman (of any race) and the first African American to graduate from the university with a master’s degree. She also became the first Black chemistry professor at the school.
After she completed her graduate studies, Ball concentrated her research on finding a cure for Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy. Through her trials, Ball found a way to extract oil from the chaulmoogra tree and inject it into patients who suffered from the disease. This lessened their symptoms and was called “The Ball Method.” It was widely used until the 1940s.
While “The Ball Method” was a major scientific breakthrough at the time, Alice Ball died in 1916 when she was 24, just a year after her discovery. Her mentor, University of Hawaii President Dr. Arthur Lyman Dean, continued her work and was credited with discovering the link between chaulmoogra tree oil and its affect on leprosy, which became known as “The Dean Method.”
Ball’s research and her scientific achievements went unnoticed by the University of Hawaii until about a decade ago.
Miles Jackson, University of Hawaii professor and dean emeritus, explained, “The university ignored Alice Ball up until 10 or 12 years ago.” He added, “Men dominated higher education in 1915 and Alice Ball was admitted against the odds. She must have been a highly motivated woman to return to Hawaii alone, where she had no family.”
In 2000, the University of Hawaii finally honored Alice Augusta Ball by erecting a plaque in her honor on the school’s only chaulmoogra tree. Additionally, Mazie Hirono, the former Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii, declared February 29 “Alice Ball Day.” In 2007, the University of Hawaii Board of Regents honored her work and memory with its highest award, the Regents Medal of Distinction.