Science Poetry

Oil and Water

“Swiftly, synthetic’ly,
Alice Augusta Ball
Works towards seeds of the
Chaulmoogra trees;
Efforts invested yield
Oil’s ethyl ester and 
Thus a key treatment
To combat disease.”  

The 14 April 2021 Twitter poem was another biographical tribute.  This one celebrated the chemistry achievements of Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916), who developed the first effective medical treatment for leprosy.  

“Swiftly, synthetic’ly, / 
Alice Augusta Ball /
Works towards seeds of the / 
Chaulmoogra trees…”

Alice Ball was a gifted researcher in synthetic organic chemistry.  She completed her undergraduate work at the University of Washington and soon after earned a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii (becoming both the first Black student and the first woman to do so).  She ultimately accepted a research position at Hawaii’s Kalihi Hospital, working with surgeon Harry Hollman on a treatment for leprosy.  It was known that chaulmoogra oil, derived from “seeds of the / [c]haulmoogra trees,” was a useful treatment for this disease.  However, the oil itself had several side effects.  It couldn’t be taken orally, as it made patients ill.  Moreover, the oil couldn’t be injected without causing unwanted blistering and pain; due to its viscous nature and water-insolubility, it would clump up under the skin.        

“Efforts invested yield /
Oil’s ethyl ester and /
Thus a key treatment /
To combat disease.” 

Ball determined that if the fatty acids in the chaulmoogra oil were converted to their ethyl esters, the medication would become water-soluble: able to dissolve in water; capable of traveling through and being absorbed by the body; avoiding the terrible side effects while remaining medically active.  This was a tremendous accomplishment, revolutionizing the treatment of leprosy.    

Tragically, Ball died soon after this discovery, at the age of 24.  Moreover, another chemist, Arthur Dean, continued her work without crediting her, publishing extensively on “Dean’s method” as a leprosy treatment.  

However, years later, the credit for Ball’s work was rightfully restored, and the pertinent technique is now known as Ball’s method.  The University of Hawaii celebrated Alice Augusta Ball Day earlier in 2022.