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This Black Woman Chemist Created a Leprosy Treatment, but a White Man Took Credit

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Alice Augusta Ball developed the first successful treatment for leprosy before dying at just 24 years old. (GV Wire Composite/Paul Marshall)
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Alice Augusta Ball was just 24 years old when she died in 1916. But she already was a superstar in chemistry, having developed the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy (Hansen’s disease).

Born in Seattle, she earned undergraduate degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy from the University of Washington. Then, she added a master’s in chemistry from the College of Hawaii and, at age 23, became the college’s first Black, woman chemistry instructor, in addition to its first Black and first female master’s degree recipient.

Her research resulted in the first injectable leprosy treatment using oil from the chaulmoogra tree. That treatment was used on thousands of people for more than 30 years until antibiotics were introduced.

However, following Ball’s death, the president of the College of Hawaii, Dr. Arthur Dean, claimed her discovery for himself, calling it the “Dean Method.”

“Since we cannot bring Alice back to life, the least we can do is tell the story of her life as honestly and thoroughly as possible so people will know about her outstanding work today and in the future,” says Paul Wermager, a retired librarian who has been documenting Ball’s remarkable life for 20 years. “She and her work can help educate and inspire (people to) do the seemingly impossible.”

To learn more about Ball’s life, legacy, and family, read this article by Kathleen M. Wong at Smithsonian Magazine.

 

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