Finding a Treatment for Leprosy

Alice Ball was one of four children born to a prominent middle-class African American family. She earned two Bachelor’s degrees from the University of Washington in Chemistry and Pharmacy. As an undergraduate, she published a paper in a leading chemistry journal. This led to numerous scholarships to pursue a Master’s degree. She chose to do her Master’s degree at the University of Hawaii.

Her Master’s degree led her to take an interest in the chemistry of plants, and this led to an opportunity to study a plant that was thought vital to the treatment of leprosy.

Leprosy is one of the most stigmatized diseases in the history of the world. Those with leprosy were generally sent to leper colonies to die. Alice was asked to study the chemical makeup of chaulmoogra oil, the best-known treatment for leprosy. The oil was too sticky to be applied to the skin, and it wasn’t absorbed. When drunk, the oil made patients throw up.

Alice devised a way for the oil to be injected into the body. Unfortunately, she died from chlorine poisoning when teaching a lab and was not able to test her approach.

One of the faculty who later became President of the University of Hawaii stole her work and gained credit for it. Alice was never mentioned in the publications. Years after her death, professors at the University of Hawaii studied the archives of her research and verified that she was the one who should be given credit for the discovery. Eighty-four years after her death, the University of Hawaii finally honored her.

While Alice’s approach to the treatment of leprosy has now been supplemented with new medications, her method renewed the lives of those with leprosy for many years.

The contributions of many hidden heroes remain unacknowledged or forgotten. In Alice Balls’ case, her contributions were never known until years later due to the deceptions of an unscrupulous faculty member. One would hope that this is a rarity, but there is a history of the theft of intellectual property. In fact, many of the cybercrimes today are to gain access to the ideas of others.

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“The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, rather the feeling of being unwanted.” – Mother Teresa

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