Remembering The Legacy Of Alice Ball Of UH - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Paul Wermager

Paul Wermager is former ICU nurse and head of the University of Hawaii-Manoa Science and Technology Department at Hamilton Library. He holds an M.A. in public health with a thesis on dengue fever and is currently working on a biography of Alice Ball.


As science librarian at Hamilton Library, I was first introduced to Alice Augusta Ball by a question asked 25 years ago about the unique tree on the UH campus.

Opinion article badge

The UH professor with that question was surprised that, yes, there was a chaulmoogra tree on campus, which had been donated in 1931 by the King of Siam to thank Hawaii for its help with leprosy.

The professor’s research indicated that Alice Ball was the first African American and first woman to earn a master’s degree in chemistry from the College of Hawaii.

Intrigued, I entered her name in the online backfiles of the Journal of the American Chemical Society that the library had acquired. Alice had co-authored not one but two articles in that prestigious chemistry journal!

I was then hooked on Alice Ball.

Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, a Public Health Service physician at Kalihi Hospital, asked Alice to find a less painful injection of chaulmoogra oil for leprosy patients. By 1915, Alice had quickly developed the ethyl esters of chaulmoogra oil that made it water soluble.

Alice Ball mug
Alice Ball. 

In the next year, Dr. Hollmann reported that 63% of patients had “improved” and 6% were free of the leprosy “bacilli” after being treated with Alice’s preparations.

Tragically, Alice died shortly after making her breakthrough treatment for leprosy on the last day of 1916 at the much-too-young age of 24. Her leprosy treatment would continue to be used worldwide until the mid-1940s when sulfa drugs were introduced.

Dying before she was able to publish and because she was an African American and a woman, she and her accomplishments never made it into the pages of history.

The following aspects indicate Alice Ball’s uniqueness:

She and her family who were from Seattle lived in Hawaii from 1903 to 1905 where she finished her eighth grade at Central Grammar School.

She and her family lived for a short time in Buenos Aires, Argentina, between 1909 and 1910. Alice is likely the first woman to be a ham operator in North America.

Alice Ball was the first woman to become the head of the College of Hawaii’s chemistry department and also the first in the U.S. She became the first African American woman to become a member of the Sigma Xi scientific research honor society.

I believe that Alice Ball’s greatest gift to humanity was hope.

A community park in Seattle is now named the Alice Ball Park. In 2007, the UH Board of Regents awarded posthumously their Medal of Distinction to Alice Augusta Ball for her significant contribution to the treatment of Hansen’s Disease.

A dedication plaque to Alice Ball at UH.
The dedication plaque and tree to Alice Ball at UH. Submitted

This February, Gov. David Ige signed a proclamation to have Alice August Ball Day celebrated every year on Feb. 28.

In addition to all of Alice’s accomplishments, I believe that Alice Ball’s greatest gift to humanity was hope.

After her discovery, physicians and leprosy sufferers had hope for the first time that one day patients would be free of the dreaded leprosy and able to return to their families.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.


Read this next:

A ‘Friendlier Process’ Proposed For Maui County Board Applicants


Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.

Contribute

About the Author

Paul Wermager

Paul Wermager is former ICU nurse and head of the University of Hawaii-Manoa Science and Technology Department at Hamilton Library. He holds an M.A. in public health with a thesis on dengue fever and is currently working on a biography of Alice Ball.


Latest Comments (0)

Great article. Hawaii's contributions to the world are often overshadowed by this thing called tourism.

surferx808 · 3 months ago

Mahalo for rooting out another American hero especially working from Hawai'i. It's nice to hear good news on CB.

Koaniani · 3 months ago

thank you for sharing something so important to our lives today for the contributions of heroic people of the past like Alice Ball. We can be proud to be at the forefront of her work. Thank you for raising our awareness of the great things happening in Hawaii.

Janyouth · 3 months ago

Join the conversation

About IDEAS

IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.

[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]

Mahalo!

You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.