Meet Alice Ball, Unsung Pioneer In Leprosy Treatment

16:21 minutes

In 1915, an infection with leprosy (also called Hansen’s disease) often meant a death sentence. Patients were commonly sent into mandatory quarantine in “leper colonies,” never to return.  Before the development of the drug promin in the 1940s, one of the few somewhat-effective treatments for leprosy was use of an oil extracted from the chaulmoogra tree. However, that oil was not readily water soluble, making it difficult for the human body to absorb.  

A new short film, The Ball Method, tells the story of Alice Ball, a young African-American chemist. She was the first woman and first African American to receive a Master’s degree from the University of Hawaii, and also the first to be a professor of chemistry there. Ball was able to discover a method for extracting compounds from the oil and modifying them to become more soluble—a modification that led to the development of an injectable treatment for leprosy. 

Dagmawi Abebe, director of the film, joins Ira to tell the story of Alice Ball, her work, and why she failed to receive credit at the time for her contributions to medicine. 

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Segment Guests

Dagmawi Abebe

Dagmawi Abebe is the director and screenwriter of The Ball Method (2020). He’s based in Los Angeles, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Picture the world of chemical research, oh, about 1910. I’m guessing that a young African-American woman probably is not a big part of that mental picture, right? Well, she should be. Alice Ball was a chemist who developed the most effective treatment for leprosy in the early 1900s.

Joining me now to talk about the story of Alice Ball and her legacy is Dagmawi Abebe. He’s director of The Ball Method, a short film about Alice Ball. It’ll be making its world premiere next week at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, bringing Alice ball out of the shadows of hidden figures. Full disclosure, the film received a grant for its development from the Sloan Foundation, that’s also a contributor to Science Friday.

Dagmawi joins us from Skype. Welcome to Science Friday.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s start with the capsule summary, who was Alice Ball? Give us a little bit of thumbnail profile there.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yeah, so Alice Ball was an African-American woman born in 1892 to a middle upper class family. And she attended the University of Washington and graduated with two bachelor’s degrees in pharmacy. And after that, she went to the University of Hawaii, which used to be called the College of Hawaii back then, and became the first woman to graduate with a master’s degree in chemistry. And then also end up being an instructor there as well.

IRA FLATOW: How did she get focused on helping people with leprosy?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Well, it started with her thesis, her master’s thesis and Dr. Harry Hollmann, who was an assistant surgeon in Kalihi Hospital where they used to take care of patients with leprosy. He read her thesis and he saw that the method she was using on the kava plant on her thesis could help them get the injectable solution that he was looking for for the leprosy patients.

IRA FLATOW: So that was the idea, they had this plant and it sort of worked a little bit, but not very well, and she helped to start look for an injectable solution.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, they used to apply it as a lotion, first, but that wasn’t very effective. And then they tried giving it orally, but that would also make patients vomit. And so Dr. Hollmann knew that injectable solution was the key, but the problem was that the chaulmoogra oil wasn’t soluble, wasn’t being able to take by the human body. So he needed somebody to help him to accomplish that.

IRA FLATOW: Because in those days, if you had leprosy, you were a dead person walking, right? You were–

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, basically.

IRA FLATOW: –exiled to an island.


IRA FLATOW: And so Alice Ball worked with people before they were sent off to this quarantine.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, she started working on it the summer of 1915. And what would happen was patients would get sent to Kalihi Hospital, they would stay there ranging from two weeks to a month. And then when they were deemed that they were not going to get better, they would get sent to this small island called Molokai where there was a settlement called Kalaupapa. And that settlement actually still has a lot of patients on it today.

IRA FLATOW: So you chronicle in the book how she sort of stumbled on the answer to making the injectable solution. How close is that to the truth? I mean, I know you have literary licensing for writing a plot for a movie. But were you able to find out what really happened?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, I think one of the important process for her to find it was letting the chaulmoogra acid staying cold for overnight. And so that was one of the things that I could show visually in the film without getting too deep into the chemistry. So that’s basically what I was trying to connect.

IRA FLATOW: And, in fact, we have to give people a little taste of the film, we have that pivotal scene in which she has that flash of insight.


SPEAKER 1: Dr. Hollmann, we have to freeze it. That’s how we get the esters to crystallize. We’ve been doing it wrong the whole time. Heating it doesn’t make it faster. It only degrades the acid before his time to combine with ethanol. If we can start the theory today, they might have a chance.

SPEAKER 2: I’ll arrange a test for tomorrow morning, OK?

IRA FLATOW: And of course, that worked, right?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes. Yeah, because I believe that leaving it in the cold was preventing the acid from degrading. So they had enough time for the acids to crystallize and be filtered. And that’s basically how she was able to find the treatment.

IRA FLATOW: But her lifetime in the film has a tragic end to it, right?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, at the same time she was an instructor at the College of Hawaii, and about six months after that an accident happened where it was chlorine poisoning. She was exposed to that, and she was sick, went back to Seattle to her home, and at the turn of the year she passed away at age 24.

IRA FLATOW: And in the film, she died of the chlorine poisoning in her own laboratory.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, well, not in her laboratory, but that was where she was exposed to it. And it took some time, she was sick, and she really wanted to go back. And there’s like some letter that her father wrote actually of how much she wanted to go back to Hawaii and continue her research, but she wasn’t able to.

IRA FLATOW: And did she ever see the fruits of her work? You show that in a few patients she was able to see it cured the patients.

IRA FLATOW: But it was never widely adapted in her lifetime because she died, what, at age 24.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes. Yeah, and even I made that part of the film, because I wanted to give her the moment. But in reality she wasn’t able to see her results. And Dr. Arthur Dean, who is the head of the chemistry department and the dean there, he ended up continuing her research and manufacturing it, and then not giving Alice the credit.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because it was originally called the Ball Method, after her name, right?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, and he called it the Dean Method, actually, and then in 1922, Dr. Hollmann published a paper where he mentioned that it should be called the Alice Ball Method.

IRA FLATOW: And did she finally start getting the recognition later on that she deserved?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, in 2000 they put up a plaque under the chaulmoogra tree on the campus of the University of Hawaii. And then Paul Wermager, who is a former science and technology librarian at the University of Hawaii, put up a small museum in the library as well for her.

IRA FLATOW: And there was also a day in Hawaii devoted to her, right? They gave her a day.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, it’s this year, actually, because it’s leap year. It’s February, 29, so.

IRA FLATOW: And what happens on that day?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: I’m not sure what happens on that day. But it’s the date to remember Alice Ball.

IRA FLATOW: And she has been gaining recognition as one of these hidden figures throughout the years, and I guess, after her death becoming recognized for the kind of work she did. And I can’t remember where I read this, but she’s being immortalized as one of the three great women who worked in saving lives for people.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, she is in London School of Hygiene. And yeah, I’m just really happy that slowly her story’s coming out, and a lot of people are knowing about a very important person in history.

IRA FLATOW: Well, not that a lot of people know about her, how did you first stumble on her, or were you looking for something?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: I like to tell untold stories of minorities. So I was reading a book on 1800 entrepreneurs, black entrepreneurs in the west. And there was a paragraph about her grandfather was a photographer. And there was a small sentence about Alice Ball, and it said that his granddaughter found the treatment for leprosy. And since I have a physics background, I was really interested in that, and I started doing more research. And that was two years ago.

IRA FLATOW: And you got the whole thing, script written, produced, filmed in two years.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, I realized that the Sloan Foundation supports films that show science in a realistic way. So I wrote it and submitted it to the foundation, and a year later, I got the grant, and then another year later, we’re finished the movie.

IRA FLATOW: Well, she did her work in Hawaii, how much of the film was actually shot in Hawaii?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: None of the film was actually shot in Hawaii. All of it was shot in and around the Los Angeles area. The last year in February around this time, I went to Hawaii and stayed with Paul Wermager and also went to the island of Molokai so I was able to know how those settlements were, how the locations were, and kind of get a feel for how to tell the story here.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I love history of science stories, but I always wonder about how much work you have to go in for someone who’s passed away and someone who’s over 100 years ago. How do you find recollections of her personality or what she was like?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, that was the most challenging part of making this film, because there was no surviving journal or diary from Alice Ball, except one sentence from her science club high school yearbook. And it said, “I work and work and still seems to have nothing done. ” So I tried to base her personality and everything around that one sentence that survives from her.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because she, in the film, she looked like a tireless– you made her to be a tireless worker, holding down lots of jobs. Even the first job in the film is when her boss approached her and she was working on this project. And he told her, you know you have to stop and go organize the lab, take an inventory of all the junk that was in there. It was a very menial task that he was assigning her.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, and that was just the surface of how much stuff she was doing while being an instructor and looking for the treatment. I believe she volunteered at a community center. And one of the worries that Dr. Hollman had, that I read, was that he was worried just how much she was working and how overworked that she was.

IRA FLATOW: So Dr. Hollmann was really sort of her mentor, then.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yeah, he really was. He really took interest in Alice, and he really cared for her from what all the readings that I’ve done. And yeah, and he was the one to also give her the credit.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, he championed her after her death.


IRA FLATOW: Do you have a background in science? Did you get interested in this because you have– you said you’re interested in physics, you have a degree in physics?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, I went to the University of Virginia, and I did my bachelors in physics. And then I went to USC to do my M.Sc. In film and TV production.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know, she was a chemist, right?


IRA FLATOW: Thank goodness, I didn’t have to do the research, because that was my worst subject. [LAUGHS]

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yeah, that was tough. But I had a chemistry consultant on set when we were doing all the science scenes.


DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yeah, and I also had the former head of the Hansen’s disease, David Scollard, helped me during the script writing phase.


DAGMAWI ABEBE: So I just wanted to be as accurate as I could.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s going to have its premiere, when, this month, right? Next week?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes. Yeah, the next two weekends February 15 and February 22 at the Pan African Film Festival.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking about The Ball Method, a great new film by Dagmawi Abebe. It’s a short film. It’s what, 20 minutes long.


IRA FLATOW: Was there a lot of stuff left on the cutting room floor here, or did you aim to make it a short piece?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: I wanted to make it under 20 minutes. There were some scenes I took out just because I thought it wasn’t needed.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: But the grant was to make a short film, and there was a limited budget. So it was trying to recreate this whole world with that amount of budget.

IRA FLATOW: I would imagine with the tragic life that she had, at least her ending in her death, somebody in Hollywood is going to say, let’s pick that up from there. Because we deal in tragedy in Hollywood and in the science. Any little ideas about that?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yeah, I really want to expand and tell their story, and also the world of the leprosy patients that were exiled. I think her story’s very interesting after she goes home sick, and just how hard you was fighting to come back. It’s very interesting. And also, there’s a lot of stories and people being exiled to this island. A lot of families, a lot of husbands willing to go to this island because they want to keep their families together. So there’s just a lot of stories in this world.

IRA FLATOW: I would also think that you did not play it up greatly in the film, but the racial side of this story is a young black woman chemist in the early 1900s, the struggles she must have had that you probably could not even find the depth of the kinds of challenges that were facing her.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, that was the first thing that intrigued me, just how she was able to do all of the things. Her, her family in that time, you know, it was before integration. And I think her ambition and just her family’s ambition was really motivating her. I know their birth certificate was actually said white, so they were able to travel to Argentina and different places around the world. So I think just their whole family’s also interesting in general.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that the fact that she was working and going to school and teaching in Hawaii far away from the mainland had anything to do with the leniency given to her in allowing her to do the research.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, I think some people would confuse her for being native Hawaiian. So I think maybe that could have helped. I can’t imagine what exactly she was going through. But my goal was to really present to not have so much racial aspect of the movie and really just try to show her as her personality, what she really was trying to accomplish.

IRA FLATOW: So where do you go to next, now that you’ve dipped a toe into science filmmaking, any other in the future?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yes, I have a couple stories that I really want to tell, and really stories that connect. I’m from Ethiopia, so really stories that connect America and Ethiopia with science included would be my goal.

IRA FLATOW: Can you give us an idea? Maybe someone’s listening.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Yeah, I mean, I really want to tell the story of Colonel Robinson, who was an African-American aviator in the 1930s who went to Ethiopia and helped the Imperial Air Force then. And this was just to prove that African-Americans have the ability to fly planes. Yeah.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: So I really like stories like that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we have that experience here in World War II.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Terrific, and I wish you great luck. The film is coming out, can we see it anywhere in any theaters yet?

DAGMAWI ABEBE: It’ll be premiering at Pan African Festival. And we’re still waiting to hear back from other festivals. So it won’t be public for at least a year.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we hope to give it the sci-fi bump, sometimes that happens here.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Well, I appreciate it.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you very much, Dagmawi, and congratulations to you for getting it in the festival.

DAGMAWI ABEBE: Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Dagmawi Abebe is a co-screenwriter and director of The Ball Method, making its world premiere next week at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. Film festival people around the world, are you listening? This is a great little film that I think you would like to show in your festivals.

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