Most people would not recognise this portrait. This is Alice Ball. Alice Augusta Ball was born on July 24, 1892 in Seattle, Washington and was born in a family of prominent African-American trailblazers. Her grandfather was James P. Ball, who was a well known photographer who focused on photographing African-Americans and African-American communities. Her family was having “difficulties” (according to stories, these included run ins with the KKK) in the continental US for their outspoken views on the plight of African-Americans in the South and found themselves in Hawaiʻi. Alice Ball attended elementary and middle school in Central Grammar School (now Central Middle School) in Honolulu and studied chemistry at the University of Washington,While she was at the University of Washington she earned a bachelor’s degree science in pharmaceutical chemistry and two years later she received a second BS in pharmacy. She was one of the few women and African-American scientists of her time ever to have been published in Journal of the American Chemical Society. After graduation, she was offered several scholarships including at UC Berkeley but opted to take her MA at UH Manoa because she wanted to study tropical medicines and she wanted to return to Hawaiʻi.
During the course of her studies at UH, she began to help with the Leprosy Station in Kalihi and found out about the use of chaulmoogra or Hydnocarpus wightiana seed oil to relieve some of the pain and other side affects of Hansenʻs disease. Hydnocarpus wightiana seed oil had been used for centuries by Indian and Chinese doctors to help alleviate symptoms of Hansenʻs disease and it was introduced as a medicine in the late 19th century. Ball found the method being used in Kalihi as being not efficient and effective enough so she sought to experience with new techniques to extract the seed oil. At the age of 23, she found a new technique that was for a very short time called the “Ball Method”. A year following her find and right after her MA graduation, she went back to Seattle for family reasons where she died at the age of 24 after complications from exposure to chlorine gas.
Her MA thesis mentor and UH president, Dr. Arthur Lyman Dean, stole her research and the credit. The “Ball Method” became the “Dean Method”. When tests of the “Ball Method” proved successful on 17 Hansenʻs disease patients in Kalihi, Dr. Dean never gave her any of the credit nor was she mentioned by the university for more than 50 years. Although she was the first female and the first African-American to graduate with a science degree from UH, UH never mentioned her.
In 2000, the then Lt. Governor Mazie Hirono named Feb. 29th “Alice Ball Day.”
In 2007, Alice Ball was finally recognized by UH and awarded posthumously with the UH’s Regents’ Medal of Distinction.
The story of Alice Ball remains a source of pride for many African-Americans but also a point of righteous anger because of what was done to her and how she was forgotten for decades. Even for people from Hawaiʻi. When we think of local, we naturally think of Kanaka Maoli, who have been here since time immemorial–and will always be here. But we also think of other groups. We think of Japanese-Americans. We think of Filipinos. We think of the Chinese. But we often forget that there has been African-Americans within our local community just as long as some of the other groups we think of as “local”. They, too, have added their stories to our own stories and we should strive to honor them too because they are part of who we are as people of Hawaiʻi.
We also tend to forget of the struggles of women in our community to gain the respect and acknowledge that is long over due. People like Alice Ball. If we really want to respect people like Alice Ball, we need to learn this histories. We need to recognize their contributions. We need to encourage more women to attend higher education. We need to not only close but obliferate the gender gap in pay, in job opportunities, in politics, and potential so that we can produce more women like our own Queen Liliʻuokalani, like Alice Ball, and so many others.