ALICE AUGUSTA BALL was the first woman to graduate from the College of Hawaii (now the University of Hawaii) in 1915 with a master’s degree in science (chemistry). She was the first African American research chemist and instructor in the college’s chemistry department. Alice Ball was also the first person to successfully develop a water-soluble, injectable form of chaulmoogra oil that was used for decades to relieve the symptoms of Hansen’s disease (leprosy).
Born July 24, 1892, in Seattle, Washington, Alice Ball grew up around chemicals. Her grandfather, J. P. Ball, Sr., was a famous photographer and one of the first African Americans in the United States to learn the art of daguerreotype. Her father, mother, and aunt were also photographers. After graduating from Seattle High School in 1910, she spent four years at the University of Washington and earned two degrees: pharmaceutical chemistry (1912) and pharmacy (1914). Before departing to Hawaii for graduate school, she co-published with her pharmacy instructor a 10-page article in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society.
While completing her master’s thesis, The Chemical Constituents of Piper Methysticum; or The Chemical Constituents of the Active Principle of the Ava Root, Dr. Hollmann, Assistant Surgeon at Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii where new Hansen’s disease patients were sent, asked Alice Ball to help him isolate the active agents in chaulmoogra oil. In a short period of time, she accomplished what many researchers, chemists, and pharmacologists working around the world for hundreds of years had not been able to do.
Sadly, Alice never lived to witness the results of her discovery. On December 31, 1916, she died at the age of twenty-four. A 1918 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that 78 patients of Kalihi Hospital were released by board of health examiners after being treated by chaulmoogra injections.
For almost eighty-five years, the amazing life and accomplishments of Alice Augusta Ball seemed lost in the pages of time. On February 29, 2000, the Governor of Hawaii issued a proclamation, declaring it “Alice Ball Day.” On the same day the University of Hawaii recognized its first woman graduate and pioneering chemist with a bronze plaque mounted at the base of the lone chaulmoogra tree on campus. In January 2007 the Board of Regents of the University of Hawaii honored Alice’s work and memory with its highest award: the Regents Medal of Distinction (posthumously conferred).