How It Works
Alice Ball 1892-1916
Long before Alice Ball was born, leprosy – or Hansen’s disease as it was then known – wreaked havoc on the health of people around the world, causing nerve damage and skin lesions. A bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae was discovered to be the culprit in 1873 by Norwegian physician Dr Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen. The first treatment for the condition was to use oil from a chaulmoogra nut, applied as a topical treatment, ingested or even injected. Although patients that underwent this treatment showed improvements, the long-term side effects arguably outweighed the benefits, with bruises beneath the skin and nausea replacing the symptoms of leprosy. That was until Alice Ball stepped in with a revolutionary new method of treatment. Ball had made waves during her academic career, becoming the first African-american and the first woman to graduate with a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii. Having caught the eye of Dr Harry Hollmann, an assistant surgeon at Kalihi Hospital, a treatment centre for leprosy patients, Ball began working on a new way to isolate the active ingredient in the oil. Focusing on a method to extract the medically beneficial compounds from chaulmoogra as opposed to using the oil in its entirety, Ball engineered a water-soluble injection as an alternative treatment, one that would be used until the 1940s. Sadly Ball died at the age of 24 before her work could be published, and so credit for her revolutionary method was attributed to colleague and college president Arthur L. Dean, who neglected to mention Ball’s involvement in the ‘Dean Method’. Justice for Ball’s exemplary work, however, came when Hollmann credited the scientific advancement as the ‘Ball Method’.