UH alumna and key figure in the fight against Hansen's disease honored posthumously with Regents' Medal of Distinction

Alice Ball was first woman and first African American to earn a master's degree from UH

University of Hawaiʻi
Carolyn Tanaka, (808) 956-9803
Mia Noguchi, (808) 956-9095
External Affairs & University Relations
Posted: Jan 12, 2007

HONOLULU — The University of Hawaiʻi Board of Regents (BOR) has chosen to honor UH alumnus Alice Augusta Ball, a pioneer in the fight against Hansen‘s disease and a significant figure in the university‘s history, by posthumously awarding her with the Regents‘ Medal of Distinction.

The Regents‘ Medal of Distinction is presented to individuals of exceptional accomplishment and distinction who have made significant contributions to the university, state, region or nation or within their field of endeavor.

Ball was the first woman and first African American to earn a master‘s degree from UH. Obtaining a Master of Science degree in chemistry in 1915 when it was then the College of Hawaiʻi, Ball went on to develop an injectable form of the active agents in chaulmoogra oil, which was used for 20 years to treat Hansen‘s disease. She sadly passed away at the age of 24 in 1916, and never received honor in her lifetime for her accomplishments.

"Alice Ball was a woman of many firsts, and as the university embarks on its Centennial Celebration, it‘s only fitting that we choose to honor the first woman and first African American to earn a master‘s degree from UH with the prestigious Regents‘ Medal of Distinction," said UH Mānoa Chancellor Denise Konan. "Alice laid the foundation not only for women and minorities to aspire to earn a graduate education in Hawaiʻi, but also paved the way for a cure for a devastating disease affecting Native Hawaiians, and we are proud to shed light on her accomplishments."

Ball‘s master‘s thesis, entitled "The Chemical Constituents of the Active Principle of the Ava Root," which is still a part of the holdings in UH Mānoa‘s Hamilton Library, focused on her research centered on extracting the active ingredients from the ava (kava) root. Having heard of her chemical skills, a United States public health officer requested that she try her technique on chaulmoogra oil, which was used for centuries to treat Hansen‘s disease but with unreliable results.

Ball was able to isolate the chemically-active agents from the oil, a chemical extraction process that had thwarted researchers for years and became known as the "Ball Method." As a result of her research, no patients were sent to Kalaupapa between 1919 and 1923, and for the first time, some patients were released from Kalaupapa.

Born in Seattle, Wash., in 1892, Ball moved with her family to Oʻahu in 1903 to accompany the ailing J.P. Ball, Sr., her grandfather and a famous photographer. Her family moved back to Washington shortly after his death in 1904, and she continued her high school and undergraduate studies there, earning a pharmaceutical chemistry degree in 1912 and a bachelor‘s degree in pharmacy from the University of Washington in 1914. She returned to Seattle in 1916 after becoming ill and passed away on December 31 at the age of 24.

Established in 1907 and fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the University of Hawaiʻi is the state‘s sole public system of higher education. The UH System provides an array of undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees and community programs on 10 campuses and through educational, training, and research centers across the state. UH enrolls more than 50,000 students from Hawaiʻi, the U.S. mainland, and around the world. For more information, visit www.hawaii.edu.