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STEM Women Hall of Fame: Alice Augusta Ball

Cristen Conger

Courtesy: Black Past
Courtesy: Black Past

STEM Women Hall of Fame Facts: Alice Augusta Ball

  • Born: July 24, 1892 in Seattle, Wash.
  • Historical context: Ball came from and upheld a familial legacy of firsts. Her photographer grandfather, J.P. Ball, was one of the first black men in the United States to learn the daguerreotype process, and she became the University of Hawaii's first female graduate with a Master of Science Degree in Chemistry and its first black chemistry researcher and instructor.
  • Thesis title: The Chemical Constituents of Piper Methysticum; or The Chemical Constituents of the Active Principle of the Ava Root
  • STEM Legacy: Isolated a chemical in chaulmoogra oil effective for the treatment of leprosy.

Alice Ball had a singular focus on science, earning degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy from the University of Washington in 1912 and 1914, respectively. A year later in 1915, she received her historic master's from the University of Hawaii.

During her research at the school, Ball teamed up with a local surgeon to isolate active chemicals in chaulmoogra oil, which had been used for centuries as a topical treatment for Hansen's disease, or leprosy. She quickly isolated its active ingredients into an injectable form, and the "Ball method" became the most successful leprosy treatment until the arrival of an antibiotic treatment in the 1940s.

It would be the pinnacle of Ball's brief, though bright, STEM career. On Dec. 31, 1916, at just 24 years old, she died. In 1922, with little fanfare, she received posthumous attribution for her chemical discovery in a medical journal paper. In 2007, University of Hawaii awarded Alice Augusta Ball the Regents Medal of Distinction.

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