Ancient Archive – Black History Month // An African-American Woman Kicked Leprosy’s Ass – Alice Ball

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Welcome to the first Ancient Archive of 2020!

The last time I did one of these, I labelled it Grey Learns. The first time I did it, I labelled it Ancient Archive. Sometimes the first idea is the best one.

In 2020 I would love to get more people involved in these little history posts that I do and I thought it would be easier if I had a more universal series title.

So if you would like to join in on the fun I have a page where you can find all the information you need to participate!

Back to this Ancient Archive though!

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A white man tried to erase her from history but Alice Ball’s name should never be forgotten.

She saved the lives of, at least, thousands of people. She replaced a treatment that could be crippling with a cure. She helped to basically eradicate a disease that saw swarms of people pushed out of their homes and exiled to an island to die a lonely death. Alice did not live a long life, but she sure did leave her mark on the world . . . despite a man trying to steal ownership of what she accomplished.

It’s Black History Month and so I decided that I needed to cover a Black person from history and when I was digging around the internet I cam across Alice Ball and then saw that Alice Ball Day is on the 29th of February.

Not only does that day only come around once every 4 years, this year happens to be one of those rare years AND I had already decided I was posting an Ancient Archive, whoever the topic, on the 29th.

I’m telling you, sometimes the universe gives you a nudge in the right direction but also sometimes it just straight up hits you in the head with a paddle and says ‘that one, dummy’.

I’m excited to jump right in to Alice Ball’s life but I thought I’d also include a link for the Timeline I did on Alice Ball’s life. In case anyone likes to see things in that format. It’s nothing fancy, just a spreadsheet I use to keep years in order whilst doing these posts as I work better chronologically instead of jumping around all over the place and forgetting what I’ve covered. Unfortunately this timeline is a short one.

If you click on any images used in this post it will take you to the place I got them from.

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alice ball STEM Epic Heroes
STEM: Epic Heroes the game, Alice Ball Card




There isn’t a lot known about the personality of Alice Ball as there were no notes or diaries left behind by her but she did save lives with her skills and intelligence so I choose to see her as a badass, just as I see all the women I choose to cover in Ancient Archive.

Alice was the first woman and African American woman to earn a masters degree from the University of Hawaii. She was also the first woman and African American woman to become a chemistry professor at that same college. And this all happened before the 1920’s. Alice basically said ‘fuck your racism and sexism, watch me while a make history’ and then proceeded to create a cure for a disease that’s been plaguing humanity since forever.

She was the first person to find a cure for Hansen’s disease (leprosy) which saved many people from living out their remaining years secluded from their loved ones and going through painful treatments in hopes for any kind of relief.

And yet someone tried to take the credit away from her because god forbid a African American woman forget her place become successful.

“It cannot be denied that our people, through force of circumstance, occupy a peculiar status in this country. We are not thoroughly known,” – James Presley Ball in the first issue of his newspaper, the Colored Citizen

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Alice Augusta Ball was born to newspaper editor and lawyer father, James Presley Ball and photographer mother, Laura Louise Ball in Seattle, Washington. I gotta say, I learn so much geography doing these posts. Like I had no idea what state Seattle was in. And before you come for me, I’m Australian, not American. So before you act like it’s sacrilege that I don’t know that how about you tell me which state my home city, Whyalla, is in??? Without Google!

Alice’s grandfather, James Ball Sr. was a strong abolitionist who photographed many prominent black leaders and was one of the first African Americans in the United States to learn to daguerreotype which is a process of printing photographs onto a metal plate.

Unfortunately James Ball Sr. had bad arthritis so Alice’s and her parents and three siblings moved with him to Honolulu for a brief time in 1902 where he died two years later and his family moved back to Seattle again.

Alice went onto graduate high school in 1910 with top grades in sciences. Our girl was about to take on the world of STEM.

“In fact, she was unique in America at the time because very few African-American women – and I suspect women in general – were given full access to graduate study in the sciences. It also points to a glass ceiling all women faced in America.” – Miles Jackson

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alice ball
Alice Ball, Graduation

Alice attended the University of Washington where she earned a bachelors in pharmaceutical chemistry in 1912. But she didn’t stop there! She went on to earn her second degree in pharmacy two years later, in 1914.

That same year she published a 10-page article called Benzoylations in Ether Solution in the Journal of the American Chemical Society which is a prestigious weekly peer-viewed scientific journal that was established in 1879.

After Alice graduated she was offered scholarships to the University of California Berkeley and the College of Hawaii, now named the University of Hawaii. She accepted College of Hawaii’s offer and pursued her masters in chemistry.

In 1915 she became the first woman and first African American woman to graduate with a masters degree from the College of Hawaii.

She was also offered a job as a professor and became the first African American and first woman to become a chemistry professor at the university. Alice Ball smashed glass ceiling after glass ceiling.

Post graduation, Alice turned her attention to investigating the chemical makeup and active principle of Piper methysticum (kava) for her master thesis. The bitter tasting roots of this plant have been used in herbal medicine for years. A drink produced by the roots was used to treat leprosy patients to ease their pain.

Alice likely didn’t know then that she would produce the cure for Hansen’s disease in the very near future, but Dr Harry T. Hollmann saw her intelligence and was impressed by her work on Piper methysticum.

“Men dominated higher education in 1915 and Alice Ball was admitted against the odds. She must have been a highly motivated woman to return to Hawaii alone, where she had no family.” – Miles Jackson, University of Hawaii professor and dean emeritus

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Alice Ball Molokai Island Leper Colony
Kalaupapa Colony, Molokai Island

Hansen’s disease (leprosy) is an infection that can damage nerves, respiratory tract, skin and eyes.

It’s a disease that has affected humanity for thousands of years, the first evidence we have dates back to 2000 BC. Because of this it has survived through eras of great misunderstanding of how the disease and disease in general works and it is still seen as easily contagious. People who have been completely cured of the disease can still be seen as ‘untouchable’, living a continued life of ostracism. This has caused a lot of continued social stigma which causes people to feel too ashamed to self-report and seek early treatment.

For nearly a century sheriffs and policeman captured people who were suspected of having Hansen’s disease (mostly Native Hawaiians because colonisation and racism are always just a hair’s breadth away) and they were detained at the Kalihi Hospital, known to Hawaiians as “the land of the living dead”. If doctors deemed the patient’s condition to be too advanced, they would be exiled to a colony, Kalaupapa, on the Molokai, an isolated island.

Records suggest that at least 8,000 people, predominately Native Hawaiian’s, were moved to this colony. Patients suffered not just from the disease itself or the social stigma tied to it, they also suffered from the painful and ineffective treatments as well.

“Some people still have this Biblical image of Hansen’s disease and the stigma associated with it. They might be used to people being taken away or isolated, so we counsel them not to worry, that it’s okay to touch people, to have children, to kiss people. About 95 percent of the world population is actually resistant to the bacteria, so it takes really close contact for a long period of time to get the disease.”James P. Harnisch

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🍃 Ancient Archive // Harriet Tubman – Modern-Day Moses!

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🍃 Grey Learns // A Groundbreaking Journalist, Strong Abolitionist and Feminist – Ida B. Wells

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Alice Ball Chaulmoogra tree
Chaulmoogra tree

Chaulmoogra oil was found to have properties that could treat and potentially cure the disease but progress was slow. It was used topically since the 1300’s but that was too sticky.

Ingesting wasn’t a better option, it would make patients violently ill.

It was used as an injection but that was incredibly painful. Because of how sticky the oil is in its natural form, it clumps under the skin forming blisters. Reading the words bloody bubble wrap paints a very red and painful picture of the outcome of that treatment.

Dr Harry T. Hollmann who was the assistant surgeon at Kalihi Hospital was disappointed with these results. He decided it was time to bring on an assistant to help develop a method isolating the active chemical compounds in the oil and he knew the perfect woman for the job, our Alice.

“Doctor, I’d rather have leprosy than take another dose.” – Patient told a US Public Health Service employee

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Alice took this Chauloogra oil and studied it, she isolated the ester ethyl compounds from the fatty acids of the oil from the tree seeds, making it water-soluble meaning it could now dissolved into the bloodstream. No more bloody bubble wrap!

She produced this into an injectable at just 23 years old.

However Alice fell ill during her research and returned to Seattle for treatment. She died in her home city at the age of 24 on December 31st, 1916.

A newspaper published in 1917, Pacific Commercial Advertiser, contained an article that suggested her cause of death might have been chlorine poisoning which she would have been exposed to during her teaching lessons. But her death will never really be 100% certain is her death certificate was altered, labelling the cause as tuberculosis.

Alice died before she published any of her findings, which gave another chemist and the president of the College of Hawaii the opportunity to label himself the finder of this revolutionary cure.

“Ball’s discovery was very beneficial to alleviating the pain that was sustained by patients, and for a black woman to be able to achieve what she did and make advances in that area during that time is remarkable unto itself.” – James P. Harnisch

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The audacity. The disrespect. What a grade A Dickwad!

He even co-taught classes with Alice. The betrayal. The disloyalty. Am I being dramatic??? Yes!!!! Does this situation call for it??? YES!!!!

I don’t even want to name him because I don’t want him to be remembered but I also believe in the naming and shaming of the despicable.

His name was Arthur L. Dean and I mean this with great sincerity; FUCK THAT GUY.

Dean decided it was perfectly okay for him to publish Alice’s findings as if they were his own and takes full credit for an African American’s work because why the fuck not. Not like it was the first time, nor the last.

He renamed the cure the Dean Method and quickly began production of the injectable and it was used to treat patients. A Hawaiian physican reported in the Journal of American Medical Association that 78 patients had been released from the Kalihi Hospital thanks to the treatment of Alice’s cure. I mean they probably didn’t credit her for it but I just wanted to once again remind everyone that it was her cure because I’m furious and I’ll probably always be furious.

In 1921 Dean was mass-producing the injectable and shipped it out to doctors and government agencies across the world. But Dr Hollamann got a whiff of the injustice happening and called Dean out in a paper in 1922 where he gave Ball her credits due but she still remained almost entirely forgotten by the scientific world until recently.

“After a great deal of experimental work, Miss Ball solved the problem for me by making ethyl esters of the fatty acids found in chaulmoogra oil,” – Dr Hollmann

Black History Month

🍃 │Discover WordPressBlack History Month: Who Has Influenced and Inspired You?│Niesha Sweet│


🍃 Caro @ BookcheshirecatBooks by Black Authors #BlackHistoryMonth

🍃 │TruthoutThe Slave Trade Used to Be Legal. Let’s Not Glorify the Law.│William C. Anderson│

🍃 │Washington PostThe enslaved people who built and staffed the White House: An afterthought no more│Joe Heim │

🍃 │History.ComThe Man Behind Black History Month│SARAH PRUITT│Black PanthersBlack History Milestones: Timeline│History.Com Editors│

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alice ball plaque
A Plaque installed, honouring Alice Ball

In 1977 a poet, scholar and professor at the University of Hawaii (College of Hawaii), Kathryn Takara, Ph.D. began her research on black women in Hawaii and found Alice’s name. Stanley Ali, a retired federal worker, who was researching Blacks in Hawaii also found Alice’s name, then in a book published in 1932.

These two both contributed to making sure that truth behind the Hansen’s disease cure was restored and brought to the public’s attention.

The University of Hawaii didn’t recognise Alice’s work formally until 2000.

They honoured her with a bronze plaque on the schools only chaulmoogra tree behind Bachman Hall, around the corner you can find Dean Hall, a building erected in Dean’s honour. Students and faculty have talked about renaming it to Ball Hall which I think is way more fitting and just.

The same day the plaque was installed, Mazie Hirono, the Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii declared February 29th as Alice Ball day.

In 2007 the Board of Regents at the University of Hawaii honoured Alice with the Medal of Distinction.

In 2016 Alice is ranked in a list of most influential women in Hawaiian history by Hawai’i Magazine.

In 2017 The Alice Augusta ball endowed scholarship was established by a scholar who researches, publishes and lectures about Alice Ball, Paul Wermager. The scholarship aims at supporting students pursuing a degree in chemistry, biology or microbiology in the College of Natural Sciences and who “typify the characteristics that Ball displayed in her studies and research.”

“I do feel strongly that each year, that local newspapers, the media, will hear more about her. She was quite a positive role model.” – Kathryn Takara, Ph.D

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alice ball tarot card
Massive Science Heroes – Alice Ball Tarot Card

Alice Ball’s work directly impacted 8000 patients who were exiled to the Kalaupapa colony.

Patients can now be treated in their own homes, families no longer have to hold funerals before the exile of a loved one diagnosed with Hansen’s disease. There’s no telling just how far the reach of her work extends to, over 100 years after her death.

Today Hansen’s disease is entirely curable with a course of multiple drug therapy using antibiotics as well as other medicines to prevent complications. But the cure of patients began with Alice Ball at just 23 years old, carrying out what had until then been impossible.

Alice was a hard working, intelligent African American woman who used what little time she had in this world to cure a disease that has affected millions of people throughout the history of humanity.

She is a true hero and I’m so glad she gets the recognition she deserves and I’ll forever be pissed off that she didn’t receive it from day one.

“Not only did she overcome the racial and gender barriers of her time to become one of the very few African American women to earn a master’s degree in chemistry, [but she] also developed the first useful treatment for Hansen’s disease. Her amazing life was cut too short at the age of 24. Who knows what other marvelous work she could have accomplished had she lived.” – Paul Wermager


🍃 │History of Scientific WomenAlice BALL

🍃 │BiographyAlice Ball Biography│ Editors│

🍃 │National GeographicHow the Woman Who Found a Leprosy Treatment Was Almost Lost to History│CARISA D. BREWSTER│

🍃 │MediumThis phenomenal young woman found a cure for leprosy, but the man she worked with got the credit│Elise Knutsen│

🍃 │The DailyA tribute to Alice Bell: a scientist whose work with leprosy was overshadowed by a white successor│Erika Cederlind│

🍃 │WikipediaJames Presley BallJournal of the American Chemical SocietyKavaLeprosy

🍃 │The AtlanticWhen the Last Patient Dies│Alia Wong│

🍃 │Matteo FarinellaMassive – Science Heroes

🍃 STEM: Epic Heroes

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I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Alice Ball as much as I have!

Which historical figure should I cover next?
Who have you learned about during Black History Month?
Who are women of colour you know of who had the credit of their work stolen by white men?


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