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The History of Black Excellence in Science: Alice Ball

Author: Apeel Team

In honor of Black History Month, we’re sharing four stories of Black Americans who have gone beyond excellence, achieving the extraordinary in agriculture, science, social justice, and sustainability. Each week, members of our Black Lives Matter Task Force here at Apeel will share an individual who has inspired them with their work. 

This week, we are spotlighting Alice Ball and her achievements in pharmaceutical chemistry. She was chosen by Chuck Frazier, our Senior Director of Research & Development here at Apeel.   

Not only was Alice Ball the first African American to graduate with a master’s degree in chemistry, but also she was the first female to graduate with this degree. She was best known for her work in creating an effective treatment for leprosy. 

Born in 1892 in Seattle, Washington, Alice was born to Louise Ball and James Pressley, who was one of the first Black Americans to make use of daguerreotype photography. Alice earned her Bachelor’s degrees in both chemistry and pharmacy from the University of Washington and a Master’s degree in chemistry from the College of Hawaii (now the University of Hawaii).

After graduating, she was offered a teaching and research position, becoming an instructor of chemistry at only 23 years old. Shortly thereafter, while balancing both her teaching and research responsibilities, she successfully formulated a highly effective injectable treatment for leprosy from chaulmoogra oil, a traditional topical remedy for the skin sores. Tragically, Alice Ball never saw the fruits of her labor, dying tragically at 24 years old from the side effects of inhaling chlorine gas during a teaching lab.

Alice Ball was a true trailblazer: she was the first female and first African American to graduate with a Master’s Degree in chemistry and the first female chemistry instructor at the College of Hawaii. Ultimately, her scientific contributions led to the successful treatment of thousands of leprosy patients around the world over the more than 30 years of its use, enabling them to return home from isolation. 

“I wanted to feature Alice Ball because, like the approach we take at Apeel, Alice looked to nature to find her solution, adapting a centuries-old traditional medicine from the seed of a tree into a much more effective treatment.” – Chuck Frazier 

Want to check out more historic examples of Black Excellence in science and sustainability? (Good, because there are plenty!) You can check out last week's feature on Dr. Booker T. Whatley and stay tuned to our blog to hear more stories throughout Black History Month.

Reference Sources:
Chaulmoogra Oil research