Black Women in STEM: Alice Ball

by Lexin Chen


“Contribution of minorities are often overlooked and forgotten in history, but their presence gives a lot of inspiration to future generations.”

Have you ever had a Black woman professor? Because if you did, she must have left a deep impression on you. In Fall 2017, only 3% of Black females occupy college faculty positions, which include professors, assistant professors, instructors, lecturers, assisting professors, adjunct professors, and interim professors [1]. Of the college faculty in engineering as of 2017, 0.43% of Black females are professors, 0.69% of Black females are associate professors, and 0.75% of Black females are assistant professors [2]. With the ongoing Black Lives Matter movements across the globe, it is important to recognize the power of Black or African American females that have made significant contributions in the scientific world today.

Alice Ball was a notable African American chemist, who specialized in pharmaceutical chemistry. She was the first to develop a cure for Hansen’s disease or leprosy, a bacterial infection that was once highly infectious and devastating. At the University of Washington, she obtained a bachelor's in pharmaceutical chemistry in 1912 and pharmacy in 1914 [6-7]. In the University of Hawaii, she obtained a master’s in chemistry in 1915 and was later recruited to teach chemistry in the following academic year. She was the first woman and first African American to receive a master’s and obtain a chemistry professor position at the University of Hawaii [4].


Her research at the University of Hawaii was finding the effects of chaulmoogra oil on Hansen’s disease and possible cures or treatments [7]. At that time, leprosy was a devastating disease with almost no chance of recovery and chaulmoogra oil was the most popular method of treatment in Hawaii. However, there are often many pitfalls in this treatment because it was not effective when applied to the skin, not absorbed when injected, and distasteful when ingested. Therefore, a safer and more effective method was sought after for a long time. At age 23, Ball successfully found a method to extract ester from chaulmoogra oil and chemically modified it. Isolated ethyl ester from chaulmoogra oil could be absorbed when injected and the therapeutic effects of chaulmoogra oil were retained [5]. However, Ball did not live to see the fruits of her accomplishments as she passed away at a young age of 24 in 1916.


After her death, chemist Arthur L. Dean took over much of her work, published the studies, and started producing injectable chaulmoogra extract in large quantities [9]. The ball was never credited in any of the published works. It was not until 1922, six years after her death that Dr. Harry T. Hollman, who previously recruited Ball to University of Hawaii, helped her fight for the credit that she deserved and calling her leprosy treatment the “Ball Method” [3]. However, much of her contribution was forgotten in records and it was not until the 1970s that professors at the University of Hawaii dug up archives to help her gain the recognition she long deserved.


Contribution of minorities are often overlooked and forgotten in history, but their presence gives a lot of inspiration to future generations. By seeing an important figure that is one of “them”, it gives an individual immense inspiration to aspire to their goals.




Works Cited

[1] The NCES Fast Facts Tool provides quick answers to many education questions (National Center for Education Statistics). (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=61 [2] Tenure/Tenure-Track Faculty Levels. (2020, June 15). Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://research.swe.org/2016/08/tenure-tenure-track-faculty-levels/

[3] Cederlind, E. (2008, February 29). A tribute to Alice Bell: a Scientist whose Work with Leprosy was Overshadowed by a White Successor. The Daily of the University of Washington.

https://web.archive.org/web/20140806162033/http://dailyuw.com/archive/2008/02/29/imported/tribute-alice-bell-scientist-whose-work-leprosy-was-overshadowed-white-s

[4] Brown, Jeannette (2012). African American Women Chemists. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 19–24.

[5] Ignotofsky, Rachel (2016). "Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World". Ten Speed Press: pp.45

[6] Collins 05.12.2016, S., Jarvis 04.25.2019, C., & III 02.28.2019, E. (2019, September 30). Alice Augusta Ball: Chemical Drug Pioneer. Retrieved June 23, 2020, from https://undark.org/article/alice-augusta-ball-chemical-drug-pioneer-african-american-scientists.

[7] Jackson, Miles. “Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916)”, 25 Feb. 2020, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/people-african-american-history/ball-alice-augusta-1892-1916/.

[8] Mendheim, Beverly (2007, September). Lost and Found: Alice Augusta Ball, an Extraordinary Woman of Hawai’i Nei. Northwest Hawaii Times. http://www.northwesthawaiitimes.com/hnsept07.html

[9] Wermager, Paul, and Carl Heltzel (2007). Alice A. Ball. ChemMatters. 25(1): 16–19.

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