[Women’s History Month] Meet Alice Ball, inventor of first effective treatment for leprosy

Mildred Europa Taylor March 22, 2018
Alice Ball

March is the Women’s History Month celebrated globally to highlight the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society. The month corresponds with the International Women’s Day which is marked globally on March 8.

As part of Face2Face Africa’s commitment to informing and connecting black people around the world, we have resolved to devote each day of the month of March to celebrate black women inventors and to highlight their inventions.

Alice Ball, the first African American master’s graduate from the University of Hawaii used her passion for chemistry to develop an injectable oil extract for leprosy. A century ago, leprosy otherwise known as Hansen’s disease was not as rare as it is now. The ailment that changes from skin lesions to disfigurements could gradually kill. Lepers at the time were quarantined and had to announce their presence using bells so people could avoid them.

By the early 20th century, treatments began evolving for the disease. Chaulmoogra oil, a substance from the seeds of a tropical evergreen tree was being used to treat patients but produced inconsistent results and had side-effects.

Chemist Alice Ball came to their aid. She began investigating the chemical properties of chaulmoogra oil, where she managed to isolate the effective ingredients. This resulted in the creation of a new regimen of injection-based medicine that stayed in use for treatment of the disease for more than two decades.

Ball was born on July 24, 1892, in Seattle, Washington. She was the third of four children. She came from a family of photographers, with her grandfather, J.P. Ball, Sr., being among the first African-Americans in the United States to learn the art of daguerreotype, the first form of photography.

Ball graduated top of her class from both high school and the University of Washington, where she earned bachelors in both pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy in Hawaii. She, however, passed away on December 31, 1916, at the age of 24 after a short illness.

Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: March 23, 2018


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