Sign up for podcast updates and more!
Once upon a time, there was a girl who wanted to help people who were in pain. Her name was Alice Ball, an incredibly bright, determined young woman who grew up to be a brilliant chemist — developing life-changing treatments for patients with leprosy. She was also the first woman and first African American to graduate with a master’s degree in chemistry and also teach at the University of Hawaii It all started when she was just a young girl growing up in Seattle, observing her family use science to make art.
Lindsey E. Murphy is the award-winning creator and host of The Fab Lab With Crazy Aunt Lindsey, a kids science web series on YouTube that takes everyday science concepts and turns them into fabulous DIY projects children can do at home with their families. Since launching in 2010, the show has garnered partnerships with the likes of Scientific American Magazine, the New York Academy of Sciences, been published in various national family magazines, and crowdfunded nearly $100,000 for independent production in 2019. She is the four-time livestream host of TEDxPortland and has hosted two travel web series for Travel Oregon and Wieden+Kennedy’s On She Goes, Seasons 1 and 2.
Once upon a time there was a girl who would puzzle out the secrets hidden in plants and find cures for diseases…
Her name was Alice…
It was a dark, warm, and very humid night on an island in Hawaii. Alice was up late in the lab doing research after a long day spent instructing college students. She was trying to make sense of some of the chemicals in a compound right in front of her. As she peered into test tubes and swirled substances in flasks she asked herself: Why wouldn’t this THING dissolve?! Why did it stay so sticky? How would she get what was in this plant…OUT?!
She was tired and puzzled, but wasn’t about to let it go. Alice persisted on, alone in her research. She was only 23 years old, but she had already come so far — and she knew she couldn’t give up.
She was determined to discover a way to find a treatment for suffering patients. And so she kept trying. And it’s a very good thing that she did…
I’m Lindsey Murphy, your Crazy Aunt Lindsey. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
In this episode we learn the story of the brilliant young chemist, Alice Ball.
Alice Augusta Ball was born in 1892. She had three siblings, and lived in Seattle. Her mother was a photographer and her father did lots of things! He was a newspaper editor, a photographer AND a lawyer.
Growing up, Alice learned about her family’s photography work. Including the work of her grandfather, James Ball Sr., who was an abolitionist and famous photographer and one of the first Black Americans to use a special technique called the daguerreotype.
Daguerreotype is a very early form of photography in which photographs are printed onto a metal plate using chemicals like mercury vapor, iodine and bromine.
The process was very scientific because back then, taking a picture was a lot harder than it is today.
Alice’s grandfather would buff a silver-coated copper plate until it was shiny and reflective, and then apply chemicals to it in a quiet darkened room. He’d take the plate and carefully place it into a camera – exposing it to light and the image he wanted to preserve.
Then he had to take that plate and fix the image onto it with even more chemicals! He was basically making a NEW piece of film EVERY time he wanted to make a picture.
Alice was fascinated with the process! The chemicals merged together to create a reaction… and that reaction transported an image from her world, onto a hard surface. Alice grew up around her parents and grandfather working with chemicals probably every day. For her, chemicals were not mysterious substances…and what she would later realize, is that their possibilities went far beyond photography.
While growing up in Seattle, Alice studied incredibly hard and excelled in her science classes. She went on to study chemistry at the University of Washington after she graduated.
Back then, in 1910, it was uncommon for women to go to 4-year colleges. But on top of that, Alice was a Black woman. At the time, Black Americans weren’t afforded the same civil rights and opportunities as white Americans.
When she was in class or walking through the university, she was often the only Black woman in sight. Sometimes she’d receive funny looks, or people would ask her what she was doing there, or tell her if she was in the wrong place. Dealing with this racism — discriminating against Alice because her skin was a different color — was incredibly hard. And she was already under a lot of pressure to pass all of her classes. But Alice was determined to succeed, and she did.
At the university, she majored in pharmaceutical chemistry, the study of medicinal drugs. Her research fascinated her! She loved making hypotheses – those are educated guesses that scientists make about what might happen in an experiment. And…she loved conducting experiments.
Alice was definitely in the right place.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1912, but she still wasn’t satisfied. So Alice went BACK and earned another bachelor’s degree in the science of pharmacy two years later.
When she was in school, Alice took on research projects and published a detailed article in a very respected and well-known scientific journal called the Journal of the American Chemical Society. This was a HUGE accomplishment. Alice had now contributed something really important to the world of scientific study.
When Alice graduated she had quite a few colleges offer her scholarships to continue her studies in graduate school. She decided to pursue her master’s degree in chemistry at the College of Hawaii. When she was a kid her family had lived there for a short time. She was happy to go back.
Surrounded by lush, tropical landscapes and fresh, coastal breezes, Alice began her master’s degree program at the College of Hawaii. For her masters thesis – that’s a big project people do in college – Alice studied the sedative properties of the local kava plant, which was used in special ceremonies by indigenous peoples there.
When she received her degree Alice became the first woman and the first African American to earn a master’s degree in Chemistry from the College of Hawaii. She was already making history, and was just getting started.
Alice’s master thesis on the kava plant grabbed the attention of Doctor Harry T. Hollman. He was looking for an assistant to help him find a treatment for leprosy. Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease, is an infectious disease caused by bacteria that attacks the body. It left victims horribly disfigured and people worried it might be contagious. Anyone that had leprosy was forced to live in a colony away from everyone else.
This was a very sad and difficult process for anyone suffering from the disease. That’s why an effective treatment was desperately needed.
At the time, the only thing that seemed to work was chaulmoogra oil. This oil was used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine to treat skin diseases. But it wasn’t always dependable for leprosy — sometimes there were bad side effects, or it just didn’t work. It couldn’t be used on top of the skin, because it was too gooey and sticky. And it would cause allergic reactions if it was injected.
Dr. Hollman knew this oil was important, though. There was a special ingredient INSIDE of the chaulmoogra oil…but they just didn’t know how to get it out!
That’s why Dr. Hollman contacted Alice. Over the course of her studies she had become an expert in extracting compounds from plants! So she started working with him on researching effective treatments for leprosy — and did all this while also teaching chemistry at the College of Hawaii.
Alice was just 23 years old and her biggest accomplishment was right around the corner…
Alice threw herself into this new challenge of finding a cure for leprosy. She tested — and successfully developed — a technique that allowed for the chaulmoogra oil to be injected into the body safely. She isolated acids found in the oil, called ethyl esters, and chemically modified them to create a new water-soluble substance that could be injected into the body without causing serious pain or harm. It would become the most important leprosy treatment before the arrival of antibiotics.
But Alice’s work, and ALL the promise that it showed, that SHE showed…would be short-lived.
One day, Alice was giving a lecture to her students about how to properly use a gas mask. This was during World War I and her goal was to prepare them for any emergencies. But there was an accident during the class, and Alice was unintentionally exposed to a poisonous gas. Back then, laboratories weren’t required to have fans that blew away the air, like the fan above your kitchen stove — and Alice inhaled a dangerous amount of the gas. She passed away soon after.
Alice died too young; she was just getting started in the world of science. It wasn’t fair that it ended up this way. She had come so far, as a young, Black woman, in an industry that was almost exclusively populated with white men. But that’s why we need to tell her story — and you’ll understand why even more as you keep listening.
Alice died before many people realized that SHE was the one who discovered this new method to treat leprosy. After she passed away, the chemist and president of the College of Hawaii, Dr. Arthur Dean, decided to continue Alice’s research. He created the injectable substance that Alice had developed. Then, he decided to publish the findings without including Alice’s name or giving her any credit — in fact, he named the method after himself. As if HE had invented it. He called it the “Dean Method.”
Back in those days, it was very common for men to take credit for women’s inventions and discoveries. And that’s why it’s important to tell their stories now. There are so many extraordinary women in science who might be lesser known than their male counterparts simply because they’re women. Like Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black female astronaut to travel in space. Or Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, a Chinese immigrant to the United States, who contributed to the field of nuclear physics.
The good news? This story does have a happy ending. And here’s why.
It ended up that in 1918, 78 leprosy patients from the local hospital had been treated with injections of the new chaulmoogra oil substance…and they got better. As the years went on, Alice’s method ended up helping over eight thousand people diagnosed with leprosy! They no longer had to live in special colonies, away from everyone else. They could now get treated — in their own homes.
Doctor Hollmann, who had hired Alice to aid in his research, and became her mentor, published a paper in a medical journal in 1922, just a few years after Alice passed away. He exposed the true story of the method Alice developed and renamed it the “Ball method.”
Although, even after that, Alice remained largely left out of scientific history…until…
In the 1970s, two “activist scholars” looked up old archives and found Alice’s research! Although it took many years, they were able to share her scientific findings and successes with the world — finally giving Alice the credit she always deserved.
In the year 2000, the lieutenant governor of Hawaii named February 29th “Alice Ball Day.” And on that same day, her former college dedicated a bronze plaque to Alice, which was mounted at the base of the only chaulmoogra tree on the college campus.
She continued to receive honors and awards after that, posthumously (meaning after her death). And her story has been shared all around the world — especially with Rebels, like you.
Alice Ball was an incredibly smart, hard-working, young Black girl who grew up to be a scientific innovator. She made history as the first Black student and the first woman to graduate from her master’s program, teach chemistry classes, and eventually developed an extremely important remedy for people in pain.
And she did all of this at the beginning of the last century — before women were even given the right to vote! She’s a rebel in that way — a hero to women in science, and to girls everywhere.
Because before she grew up to make those amazing discoveries, saving the lives of thousands of people — she was simply a young rebel girl who had a dream.