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Friday, February 18, 2000

For leprosy drug pioneer, finally: honor for the healer
In the image above, taken by Star-Bulletin photographer
Dennis Oda during filming of the movie "Damien" at
Kalaupapa, actual Hansen's disease patients appear
as extras in need of medical care. Inset: Scientist
Alice Ball upon her graduation.

Alice Ball made a stunning
find in her early 20s

Grandfather famed photographer

By Susan Kreifels


Alice Augusta Ball was a list of firsts: the first and only woman to earn a master's degree at the College of Hawaii, the first woman to be a chemistry instructor there and, most importantly, the first person to extract a chemical that led to a treatment for leprosy.

Incredibly, her achievements in the early 1900s were virtually forgotten -- until a federal retiree named Stan Ali stumbled upon a reference to her three years ago while researching African Americans in Hawaii.

"I promised myself, 'Alice, I'm going to make sure you get the recognition you are due,' " he recalled last week.

Ball finally will get the recognition, more than eight decades after her groundbreaking work. On Tuesday, Hamilton Library will open a display in her honor to run through March 10. And at 3 p.m. Feb. 29, a bronze plaque listing her accomplishments will be placed at a chaulmoogra tree behind Bachman Hall at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, the same tree from which she extracted oil to get the leprosy-treating chemical.

The resurrection of Ball's life came on two fronts. Ali, who visits the islands annually from Baltimore, became intrigued and dug up most of the details after reading a brief mention of research done by a "young Negro chemist" in a 1932 book, "The Samaritans of Molokai," by Charles Dutton.

Meanwhile, three UH-Manoa staff members -- Eileen Tamura of the Curriculum Research and Development Group, Allen Awaya of the College of Education, and Warren Nishimoto of the Center for Oral History -- were delving into the history of the university, formerly the College of Hawaii, and came across Ball's name about two years ago.

"She seemed like a brilliant woman," said Tamura, whose meeting with Ali last year led to the plaque. "She did revolutionary things."

According to Ali's findings, Ball was born in 1892 and moved with her family from Seattle to Oahu in the early 1900s. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was a photographer. Ball attended eighth grade at Central Grammar School in Honolulu before her family moved back to Seattle.

Ball eventually graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in pharmacology. She arrived at the College of Hawaii in 1914, and earned a master's degree in science the next year while working at a Kalihi hospital.

Leprosy treatment extracted

The focus of her thesis was the awa root, and Ball was trying to extract its active ingredients. Dr. Harry H. Hollman, the U.S. public health officer in Hawaii, asked her to try her hand at chaulmoogra oil. She did, and isolated a chemical found to relieve leprosy symptoms when injected.

Her professors were impressed. Ball was named a chemistry instructor and worked for about a year before she became ill, returned to Seattle and died at age 24 on Dec. 31, 1916.

Although her name became obscure, Ball's findings were not neglected. Arthur L. Dean, a college chemist who became a UH president, picked up on them to develop a partially effective leprosy treatment that became known worldwide as the "Dean Method," used until more effective sulfones became available in the 1940s.

Dean did not credit Ball's work in any articles or interviews found by Ali or Paul Wermager, head of Hamilton Library's Science and Technology Reference Department, who researched the matter while preparing the library exhibit. However, Wermager did find an article by Hollman in a 1922 medical journal in which the public health officer goes to unusual lengths to refer to "Ball's Method" and her "great amount of experimental work."

Wermager's hypothesis: Hollman was "either settling an old score or righting a wrong."

Wermager said, "She did the breakthrough, the eureka moment. Hollman clears the record."

Clear or not, recognition was sparse. In 1917, College of Hawaii students and faculty passed a resolution so Ball could "be an example to all her companions and associates at the College." And in 1925, according to a local news account, Ball received posthumous praise after a medical conference in Japan -- although people assumed she was part-Hawaiian and not black. Other than that, she was barely recalled.

Neglect provoked by racism

Ali attributes the neglect to the sexism and racism of the times. Ball's birth and death certificates list her and her parents as white, which Ali believes was done to make travel, business and life in general easier. He feels the newspaper article also provides a clue.

"When they realized she was not part-Hawaiian, but Negro, they felt they had made an embarrassing mistake, forgetting about it and hoping it would go away," he said. "It did for 75 years."

But no more. Wermager described Ball's life here as "a wonderful story of a person who really contributed."

"Some people want money or fame," he said. "She got neither. It's up to us to look back and finally give her some credit."

Ali, whose research Tamura and Wermager praised, intends to bring Ball to the attention of mainland African American leaders. His regret is that she died so young. Had Ball lived longer, he said, "it boggles the mind what she would have accomplished."

Grandfather famed photographer

At least one Ball did receive recognition.

J.P. Ball, Alice's grandfather, was a well-known photographer with studios in Europe as well as the United States.

His work is included in a Smithsonian exhibition on black photographers that opened this month in Washington, D.C.

Ball was a friend of Booker T. Washington, and shot images of notable people such as Frederick Douglass.

He moved to Hawaii for health reasons, and died in the islands on May 4, 1904, at age 79.

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