If you were diagnosed with Hansen’s disease, known more commonly as leprosy, in Hawaii after 1865 you would have been forcibly removed from your home and shipped to Kalaupapa peninsula-there you would have been totally isolated in hopes of containing the spread of the disease. There were few treatments and the ones that existed offered little help or hope until Alice Ball, a young chemist, created a new treatment methodology.
Ball was asked to assist in isolating the active chemical compounds in chaulmoogra oil by an assistant surgeon at Kalihi Hospital. This oil had been used in the treatment of leprosy with somewhat mixed results most due to a terribly bitter taste that caused many people to become ill, or they would simply refuse to take the medication.
Ball was tasked with isolating the ethyl esters of the fatty acids present in the oil so they could be injected and these injections actually absorbed by the body instead of causing an adverse reaction as previous trials had. She successfully created what is known as the Ball Method, but at great cost to herself. Falling ill in 1916, she returned to Seattle for treatment but passed away a short time later. Her death was listed as unknown causes, but it is thought to have been from chorine exposure in the lab.
While she had been unable to publish her findings before her death, the head of the University’s chemistry department finished up her work and published it as his own, renaming the method to his own name even though Ball’s collaborators claim he did no work on the process. This process would be the preferred treatment until the invention of a new class of drugs in the 1940s and has been reportedly used as recently as 1999 in more remote areas.
It wasn’t until the late 1970’s when Ball’s work was rediscovered that she began to get the acclaim she deserved, including the University of Hawaii dedicating a plaque in her honor on the school’s lone chaulmoogra tree and the announcement that Hawaii would observe Alice Ball day every February 29th.
Written by Angela Goad