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Alice Ball

HERstory prevailed! Aarati tells the story of a young chemist who extracted a treatment for leprosy and only received credit for her achievement decades after her mysterious death. 

Episode Transcript Arpita: 0:11 Hi everyone, and welcome back to the Smart Tea Podcast, where we talk about the lives of scientists and innovators who shape the world. I'm Arpita. Aarati: 0:19 And I'm Aarati. Arpita: 0:20 And we're so excited to talk to you this week. Aarati: 0:23 Yeah. How are you, Arpita? Arpita: 0:25 I'm doing really well. I feel like I've had a very cozy week with, again, the very bad weather that we're having. Um. Aarati: 0:33 Wait, you muted yourself somehow. Arpita: 0:39 Now? I did not mean to do that. Um, I was going to say, as an aside, I am getting a new computer. because this one is really old. Aarati: 0:52 What kind of computer do you have? Arpita: 0:54 It's just a MacBook Pro, but it's old. Like, 2016 old. Aarati: 0:59 Oh wow, that is old for a Macbook. That's getting on. Yeah, that's getting on. Arpita: 1:06 It doesn't like it when I open, uh, multiple things at a time and I am getting a new computer so I can do this without worrying about, like right now, you can't hear it but my fans are. Running. Aarati: 1:23 Oh my god. Arpita: 1:24 It's like, you have video, you have the internet. Aarati: 1:28 What are you doing? You're killing me. Arpita: 1:32 What about you? Aarati: 1:34 Um, yeah. I've been having a good week too, except for a couple days ago the power went out at our house. And it wasn't just my house, it was like half the city. Um, and it was super random because even though the weather has been sort of dreary, it hasn't been that bad for the past week. Um, but yeah, the power went out for like 3 or 4 hours one night, and completely random, we had no heads up at all. But it did give me a chance to light my candle that I have. And it just has, like, the most magnificent scent. Arpita: 2:12 What's the candle? Aarati: 2:13 So, I went to Hawaii for my best friend's wedding in, like, 2016. And we went to this random boutique to kill time. And we were just playing around with the, like, perfumes and, like, the things that they have at the boutique that are just all so expensive. And I had absolutely no intention of buying anything. But then I sprayed this perfume and I was just like,"Oh my god, this is, this is my scent. This is it. This is, I love this. What is this? I just, I totally fell in love and I told, I told my friend about it. I was like, what do I do? Like, I'm in love with this scent, but it's like so outrageously expensive. But she was like, you need to buy it. Arpita: 2:56 I mean, you gotta get it. Aarati: 2:57 You've never... Arpita: 2:57 Yeah. Aarati: 2:58 You've never had this reaction to anything in your life. Like, so you, you need to just buy it. And I, I bought it, so. Arpita: 3:07 That was the correct decision. I support that. Aarati: 3:09 I, yeah, thank you. And thank you to my friend who enables me. Um, but yeah, I bought the scent and then a couple years later, I was like You know, I wonder who makes that scent, like it took me, it took me like three years, literally, to look up the company Um, and it's this small, woman owned boutique in, Brooklyn, and they make all sorts of scents that are just, just magical. They're just so amazing. They have sandalwood, and jasmine, and... Arpita: 3:44 So, I wish that everyone could see Aarati's face right now, because she is so excited talking about these scents. Aarati: 3:53 I never thought I would be so, like, emotionally happy over my sense of smell, but it's just But you know what though? I did work in a olfactory lab for my PhD where we were not allowed to wear any scented lotions or soaps. And so I feel like that, you know... Arpita: 4:13 Maybe you were stunted. You know, you were just deprived and then maybe Aarati: 4:18 I think that what it was. Arpita: 4:19 I wonder,'cause like olfaction is so tied to memory, I wonder if there's something, you know, from your childhood or something where there was a scent that now it just like has been triggered by this perfume, which is making you have such a strong emotional connection to it? Aarati: 4:34 Yeah, maybe. I don't know. Arpita: 4:36 I don't know. I'm just making stuff up. Aarati: 4:38 I definitely had, like, some sort of spiritual awakening, though. Then, of course, I bought a bunch more of their perfumes, and I also bought some candles from them, so when the power went out, which is where this all started... Arpita: 4:52 Oh, yeah, I forgot about your power outage.. Aarati: 4:54 Yeah. It gave me the perfect excuse to light this candle and make my whole room smell just absolutely wonderful, and everyone's, like, moaning about the power being out, and I'm just sitting in my little dark, tropical paradise. Arpita: 5:09 I'm imagining your closet just being, like, a stockpile of all these candles. Aarati: 5:14 It pretty much is. Arpita: 5:17 This company in Brooklyn is single handedly in business because of Aarati right now. Aarati: 5:21 If anyone's interested, the name is Tanais. I think that's how you say it. T A N A I S. Arpita: 5:28 This is amazing publicity for them. Tanias, we're willing to do sponsored content for you. Aarati: 5:32 Yeah, from a tiny little science podcast. Arpita: 5:37 If you're out there and you're listening. Aarati: 5:38 I love it. Yeah, that's my little thing though. Arpita: 5:40 Um, I love that. That was a great story. Um, who I'm really excited to get into our story though, so who are we talking about today? Aarati: 5:48 Um, so today, I am going to tell you the story of Alice Ball. Um, we're keeping in our theme of Black History Month and women of color scientists. Arpita: 6:00 I love the girls. Aarati: 6:02 Yeah, have you heard of Alice Ball? Arpita: 6:03 I haven't heard of Alice Ball. Aarati: 6:06 Okay, she actually, um, is sort of famous now, but, um, wasn't like that for a while. So Alice Ball was a young chemist and she actually did a lot of her work in Hawaii, so there is kind of a little crossover there with my story and this story, um, which was completely unintentional, but let's get into the episode. So Alice Augusta Ball was born in Seattle, Washington on July 24th, 1892. She and her siblings were born into a middle class family. Interestingly, although Alice is a Black woman scientist, on her birth certificate, both her parents are listed as White. Arpita: 6:52 Oh! Aarati: 6:53 Yeah, um, but on her parents' marriage certificate and U. S. Census surveys, they are both listed as Black. So in a quote for the New York Times, a professor of American history, Quintard Taylor, said,"This may have less to do with phenotype and more to do with what the Balls thought about themselves culturally." Arpita: 7:13 Interesting. Aarati: 7:14 Yeah. Arpita: 7:15 I was gonna say, I wonder if it was like a strategic move to maybe give her more opportunity or something. Aarati: 7:21 I think it was. Arpita: 7:22 Also, I did not know you listed race on birth certificates. That's, and on marriage licenses. Aarati: 7:29 I don't know. I didn't, I didn't think about that. Yeah, I don't know if we still do that or I don't know if that was a thing at the time. I don't know. But yeah, it is very interesting. Um, but you're right. It does sound like They were very much aware of how the world worked... Arpita: 7:46 Right. Aarati: 7:46 and they most likely fudged Alice's birth certificate because they hoped it would help her escape a little bit from... Arpita: 7:53 Yeah. Aarati: 7:53 racism and prejudice in society. Um, and maybe even like open up some opportunities for her in the era where separate but equal has just been established, so. Arpita: 8:05 Yeah, no, I was just gonna say this is on a much, much smaller scale, but it reminds me of, you know, those social studies that happen that say if you have a ethnic sounding name on a resume, there's like, there's an implicit bias that people have, like recruiters have when they're looking at your resume, and so if you have a name that's more white sounding, like Joe Smith or something, even if you aren't actually white, there's less of an implicit bias just by reading your name. So I wonder if it was something like that, if she's visually looks black, like a black woman, but on paper maybe is white. Aarati: 8:42 Yeah, like Alice Ball could be black or white. Arpita: 8:45 Right, Alice Ball could be, yeah, exactly. Aarati: 8:48 Yeah, and especially like back to your point about how, um, I don't know if race was, is even a thing on birth certificates anymore. Like, I don't know if you had to put your race down to like apply for jobs. Arpita: 8:59 Right, right. Aarati: 9:00 Yeah, but, um, even though they did list her as white on her birth certificate, her parents, Laura Louise Ball and James Presley Ball, were both prominent members of the African American community and strong advocates for their community rights. So, Alice's father, James, was a lawyer and an editor for a newspaper called The Colored Citizen. He was also a photographer, which is a skill that he picked up from his father, James Ball Sr. So that's Alice's grandfather. And James Ball Sr. was actually a famous photographer. He was the first Black person to use a daguerreotype, which is a type of way to print photographs on metal plates. So, super early photography. Arpita: 9:47 Like, it's on a piece of metal, like you transfer the image onto a piece of metal. I don't even know how to picture that. Aarati: 9:53 Yeah, so I had to watch a video to understand how they did this, um, but basically, you have a polished copper plate that's coated in silver, and then you cover that in a solution of iodine and bromide, which makes the silver light sensitive. So then when you put that plate into the camera and open the shutter, an image of whatever the camera is pointed at gets imprinted onto the plate. Arpita: 10:19 Oh, so you kind of have like a really old timey Polaroid, because then you take the plate out and there is an imprint of the image. Aarati: 10:27 Yes, but then to, then you still have to develop the image. Oh, you still have to develop it. Um, yeah, so then you have to develop and fix the image using mercury fumes, a salt called sodium thiosulfate and gold chloride to bring out the different tones and give the image more contrast. Um, so there's like a step by step video of this on the Victoria and Albert Museum YouTube channel that like takes you through all the steps if you're interested. Arpita: 10:55 Sounds toxic. Aarati: 10:56 Yes. Um, it's a very involved process. A lot of chemical reactions going on, but Alice grew up surrounded by that because her grandfather did that and then her father did that. So the photography and the chemicals they were using were fascinating to her. And so she naturally developed an interest in chemistry because of this. Um, so in 1903, when Alice was 10 years old, her grandfather was suffering from arthritis. So the family decided to move to Hawaii, hoping that the warmer weather would help. Unfortunately though, after a short while, he passed away. So within a few years, the family moved back to Seattle. Alice went to Seattle High School, and excelled in science courses, which was pretty rare for a woman at a time, let alone a woman of color. Arpita: 11:45 Yeah. Aarati: 11:46 She had a very outgoing, witty, and ambitious personality. She was in the high school drama club, and when she graduated in 1910, her high school yearbook quote was,"I work and work, and still it seems I have nothing done." Arpita: 12:02 That's relatable as hell. Aarati: 12:03 I know, right? I was just like Same. Same. Just spinning my wheels. Yeah, especially in science. It seems like you work so hard and then after all of that, you have one data point. Great, now I just need a hundred more. Arpita: 12:19 This was her high school quote? Aarati: 12:21 Yes. Arpita: 12:21 Poor thing, my lord. She needs... Aarati: 12:24 Her high school yearbook quote, too. Yeah. Arpita: 12:28 She needs like a map and a vacation. Aarati: 12:30 I know. But very, very ambitious personality already, you can tell. So after high school, Alice went to the University of Washington, where she earned two Bachelors of Science degrees, one in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and one in Pharmacy. While she was here, she also co published her first paper, along with one of her pharmacy instructors, William Dehn, called Benzoylations in Ether Solution in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Arpita: 12:59 I'm just, I, whatever... how... What? Aarati: 13:04 Yeah. Arpita: 13:05 Like. I know. Aarati: 13:07 So, like, she's doing her B. S., she's doing two B. S.'s, two Bachelors of Science, and published her first paper. In a very prestigious journal, by the way, JACS is still, like, a really good journal to publish in. Arpita: 13:21 It's a really good journal. Aarati: 13:22 Um, yeah. And again, like, early 1900s, so this is an amazing achievement for a woman. Let alone a Black woman, so. Arpita: 13:32 And also, pause, she's going to college. She's a Black woman. And she's going to college in, what, 1910 we're at right now? Like, that is a huge accomplishment. Just the fact that she's going. Aarati: 13:45 And be studying science. Yeah. Arpita: 13:48 I'm just blown away by all these people who are publishing papers so young. I did not publish my first paper until Grad school? Aarati: 13:57 I know. Yeah. I mean, on the one hand, it's like, these people are truly amazing. On the other hand, there is something to be said about, like, how complicated the world has got. Like, I, I don't really, I'm not a chemist. So I asked my brother, who is a chemist, what the heck benzoylations in ether solutions are. Like, what does that mean? What is this thing that she's published? Arpita: 14:22 Yeah. Good question. Aarati: 14:23 And he was basically like. Um, it's basically just another toolkit in the chemistry toolbox, so we couldn't really come up with many concrete examples of what you would use this reaction in. But it's like, if you ever wanted to know what benzene chemical would, how it would react in an ether solution, now you know, because Alice Ball did that. Um... Arpita: 14:50 I see. Aarati: 14:51 But where do people use that reaction? Or like, I don't know, maybe, maybe someone in the audience has. It's a better idea, but, um, you could not get that published today, I don't think, like, you would have to... Arpita: 15:03 Yeah, like, the standard for publication is so much higher. Not that it's, like, necessarily the science, but, um, like, even to get a paper in a really high journal, you it's like multiple years of experiments that you have now put in with, like, many different figures. That is not quite so simple. Aarati: 15:24 Yeah, and you have to show, like, some impact, you know? Like, you, I feel like you have to show, like, how this could be used, or what the use is of this, you know? Potentially, even. Arpita: 15:36 Yeah, like, maybe what we would think of as an abstract today. Aarati: 15:40 Yeah, exactly. Arpita: 15:41 We're just making ourselves feel better, really, is what we're doing. Aarati: 15:44 Yeah. Exactly. Arpita: 15:45 We're just self soothing. Aarati: 15:47 We're still smart. Yeah. We really are. That's, that's all this is. You're right. Arpita: 15:53 It's just like a big ego boost. Like, we only started this podcast as just an ego boost. Aarati: 15:58 Yeah, exactly. Um, anyway, that. Opened the doors for her quite a bit after she graduated, um, numerous universities, including UC Berkeley, offered her scholarships to continue her higher education, but ultimately she decided to go back to Hawaii. Uh, she accepted an offer from the College of Hawaii, which is today the University of Hawaii, to study for her Master's degree in chemistry. Alice's Master's thesis was on extracting one of the active ingredients in the kava or awa root, which is a plant that is native to the Pacific Islands. It's been used as an herbal remedy and people would drink it in ceremonies and social gatherings because it helped reduce anxiety and stress. So people would dry out the root, grind it into a powder, and drink it as a tea. Arpita: 16:52 Is it like an intoxicant? Aarati: 16:56 So, yeah, so, actually, that's funny, because the Latin name for the kava plant is called Piper methysticum, which literally translates to intoxicating pepper. Arpita: 17:09 Oh. Aarati: 17:10 So, the active ingredients in the kava root that Alice found a way to extract are called kavalacetones, and these are chemicals that work on your brain, kind of like alcohol, uh, to make you feel happy and relaxed. In her thesis paper, Alice writes, kava is at first stimulating, but the effects of an excess resembles that of opium, producing a drowsy drunkenness lasting for two hours. Arpita: 17:36 How, how would one acquire Kava in this day and age? Aarati: 17:41 In this day and age, it sounds like you can just get it as a pill, uh, but Alice found a way to extract what actually, like, the the actual chemical that worked on your brain. Arpita: 17:52 Mmhmm. Aarati: 17:53 Um. And she was able to, like, figure out what that was, isolate it, extract it, and then show that it produced the same drowsy, happy effects, like I think she did some animal studies to show, um, that when she injected animals with it, it, they kind of got happy and drunk a little bit. Arpita: 18:14 Yeah, that's so interesting. I've never heard of this before. I, um, there's, I'm sure you've seen, like, this interesting wave of people who aren't really drinking anymore, and there's all these, like, alternatives to alcohol, there's these, like, CBD drinks, and every time I go to Whole Foods, I feel like there's, like, this whole new section, and my partner and I, like, aren't big drinkers, but now there's all these Liquor alternatives that are... Aarati: 18:41 Oh! Arpita: 18:41 like a whiskey replacement and a particular replacement. And so then if you want a fun drink, but you aren't really drinking... Aarati: 18:47 Mm-Hmm. Arpita: 18:47 you can have one of these instead. And I feel like the holy grail is the... something that gets you the effects of alcohol without the hangover, without all of the negative effects of alcohol. Because like, people do want a social lubricant, myself included. Like, you go to a party and you just want something to kind of take the edge off a little bit when you're in a social situation. So, I'm so intrigued by this because it seems like the perfect mix of, you know, making you feel happy and relaxed, but maybe without the negative effects of alcohol. Aarati: 19:21 Yeah, so I actually didn't look into, like, how you would get it today. Arpita: 19:28 Yeah, I'm like, how do I get this? Aarati: 19:30 But I think you, I think you can, because it's just a root, you know, that people were drinking as a tea. That's pretty herbal. Arpita: 19:37 Yeah, yeah, yeah. Aarati: 19:39 You know, so, I. I think you should be able to buy it, probably, but, um... Arpita: 19:43 Okay, BRB, adding to my Amazon cart. Aarati: 19:46 Yeah, it'd be interesting to have it and then see if it actually does make you a little bit happy and relaxed. Arpita: 19:53 There's going to be a mysterious shipment of pills arriving at my house. Aarati: 19:57 Yeah, kava root pills, what are these? Don't worry about it. Okay, so in 1915, Alice Ball graduates with her Master's degree in chemistry, making her the university's first Black and first female graduate. Arpita: 20:12 Love that. Aarati: 20:12 And then, the university actually hires her as an instructor in their chemistry department, again making her the first Black woman instructor at the university, so.... Arpita: 20:23 That's amazing. Aarati: 20:23 She just blasted through all those ceilings. She's 23, by the way, now. Arpita: 20:28 Wow. It's amazing. Aarati: 20:29 I know. So, now we're gonna pause on Alice's life for a minute, and we're gonna switch tracks so we can build a little bit of context for what was happening, um, on the islands of Hawaii at the time that Alice started teaching there. So, back then, Hawaii wasn't a state yet. It was still the Kingdom of Hawaii. If we go even further back to the 1830s, a disease called leprosy, which is also known as Hansen's disease, was just starting to spread through the Hawaiian Islands' population. So people may have heard of this, uh, because it's pretty famous, the, uh, leprosy epidemic on Hawaii. Um, but leprosy at the time had a lot of social stigma attached to it. It was spread by a slow growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae through prolonged direct person to person contact. And because of this, it took a really long time for people to understand how it was being transmitted, because it could take months or even years for symptoms to appear. And so for a long time it kind of seemed to just pop up at random because when a person got sick, they couldn't clearly trace it back to who they had caught it from. Arpita: 21:41 Yeah. Aarati: 21:41 Um. So it's not like, oh, yeah, I was just hanging out with that person who coughed and now I'm coughing. So obviously I got it from them. It wasn't like that. Arpita: 21:51 And like prolonged also seems like a little vague in this situation. So it's like how long is enough and how short is short enough that you don't get it? Yeah, I could see how that could be confusing. Aarati: 22:03 Exactly. And so, people thought that if you caught it, it was a punishment directly from God, and that you were unclean or impure in some way, and God was punishing you for that. And then add to that, that leprosy patients suffered from severe skin, eye, and nerve damage, and could become permanently disfigured, and parts of their body could get paralyzed, so it was kind of disturbing or scary to look at a person suffering with leprosy, and that just added to the social stigma of it. So, this disease is spreading throughout the native Hawaiian population like crazy. To try and put a stop to the spread, in 1866, the Hawaiian government passed a law that quarantined people suffering with leprosy on the island of Molokai, on a peninsula called Kalaupapa that was isolated by 2, 000 foot high cliffs and surrounded by ocean. Arpita: 22:58 Oh, so like, they really just stuck them there. Aarati: 23:01 Yeah, so anyone showing signs of leprosy or in some cases anyone even suspected of having it were arrested by law enforcement and essentially exiled to this peninsula. They were torn away from their homes, their jobs, family, and friends. And in some cases, their family even disowned them so that they wouldn't be suspected as having caught the disease by associating with the person that was being exiled. Arpita: 23:26 Yikes. Aarati: 23:27 Yeah, so, very traumatizing. And then when you were shipped to the island or this peninsula, um, there was really nothing there in terms of guaranteed housing or food or treatment for the disease. No one was there to take care of you. You didn't really have anything to do once you got there. Um, so basically it's just this one way ticket to this peninsula where there's nothing to do and no one to take care of you. Um, there's no cure and you were just kind of put there out of sight, out of mind until you died. So, very, very depressing. Arpita: 23:59 Damn, that is rough. Yeah. This is like how Australia got started, you know, wasn't it prisoners? Aarati: 24:07 Yeah, it was like a... Arpita: 24:08 From the UK, they just like dumped them there, and they were like, Okay, good luck, bye. Aarati: 24:11 Just, out of sight, out of mind. Yeah, we're not dealing with you. So, by the time Alice started her job as an instructor in 1915, there were over 1, 100 people living in the settlement. At this time, there were also a few facilities around Hawaii where people were working on trying to find a cure for leprosy. And one of these people was Harry T. Hollmann, who was working as an assistant surgeon at the Kalihi Hospital on the island of Oahu. He had received funding to treat patients at Kalaupapa. He had been trying to treat his patients using chaulmoorga oil, which is derived from the seeds of the chaulmoorga tree. It had been somewhat successfully used in Indian and Chinese medicine to treat leprosy, but it was very tricky to administer to patients. Arpita: 25:04 It's like a supplement, or how did they? Aarati: 25:07 So it's this oil, but it's very sticky and viscous, so it was too sticky to be spread topically on the skin. Arpita: 25:15 Uh huh. Aarati: 25:16 Um, it tasted really bitter and disgusting, and so if a patient tried to swallow it, a lot of times they would end up just throwing it up. Arpita: 25:23 Oh, no. Aarati: 25:25 Yeah. Or if they could keep it down, they felt so nauseous that they probably wouldn't want to take the treatment again. So they wouldn't stick to the treatment long term, which is what you need to do for a bacterial infection like leprosy. Arpita: 25:41 Right. Aarati: 25:41 So then, doctors tried injecting it, but again, it's an oil, so it's not water soluble. Oil and water don't mix. So, it wouldn't enter the bloodstream easily. Arpita: 25:52 Right. Aarati: 25:53 Um, instead it would just kind of sit under the skin at the injection point, forming a painful blister. Arpita: 26:00 That's so gross. I'm sorry. Aarati: 26:02 Yeah. It's very painful, and it would, quote,"burn like fire under the skin" rather than being absorbed. Arpita: 26:10 Jesus Christ. Aarati: 26:11 So. Arpita: 26:12 This is not ideal. None of this is good. Aarati: 26:14 Yeah, but the problem is, like, Harry Hollmann was struggling with this because chaulmoorga oil had shown to be an effective treatment if it could be somehow administered, like in the few patients that were either able to keep it down or, you know, it did somehow enter the bloodstream a little bit or something, it was actually treating the leprosy. It was actually working. Arpita: 26:38 So we have a, we have a route of administration issue here. Aarati: 26:43 Exactly. He just couldn't figure out how to administer it to patients in a way that was easy and effective. But then he happened to read Alice's Master thesis on the extractions of kavalacetones from the kava root. So he saw the potential of her work and reached out to her and asked if she would be willing to take on the challenge of extracting the active ingredients in chaulmoorga oil so that it could be made into a solution that could be injected into patients. Arpita: 27:13 Mm-Hmm. That makes a lot of sense. Aarati: 27:16 Yeah, and I want to mention that this is not something that just Harry had been struggling with, like, physicians around the world had been trying to use chaulmoorga oil with the same problems, and chemists had been trying to find a way to make the oil water soluble and failing. Um, so, people all around the world were struggling with this. Arpita: 27:37 Yeah, that seems, like, more complicated, right? If I think about a root, there's probably, it is probably more water based, is, it's like part of a plant, so even if it's producing an oil, like, I imagine that the active compound in a root is probably water soluble, which makes it a little bit easier to extract. I'm also not a chemist, but I'm trying to think about that, and it's like an oil seems much harder and much more complicated, and... Aarati: 28:02 It is. You're exactly thinking about it, right. Arpita: 28:05 I'm even thinking of, like, I took all the gen chem and all the organic chemistry in undergrad, which was now a long time ago, but I can't even think of oil based or fat based solutions that we worked in. Like, everything was water based or alcohol based that we did. And, like, I don't even know that that was something that we covered, even in organic compounds. So this is really interesting. I can't think of another template or, like, analogous problem that I've encountered before. Aarati: 28:35 Yeah. It's, it's a tough problem for sure. Um, and the way you're thinking about it is exactly right. Like it's very hard to get an oil and water to mix. You like, it's, it's not really possible and you have to do it in a way such that you don't lose the therapeutic qualities of the oil. Like you can get the chemical out, you can change it up all you want, but then does it still treat the leprosy or the bacteria that you're trying to, you know, like, so you can't change it too much, um, but you have to change it just enough. So, Alice agreed to take up this challenge. So, while she taught classes during the day, she worked on the chaulmoorga oil problem during her spare time. Arpita: 29:19 What spare time? Aarati: 29:22 Yeah. So any bets on how long it took her to figure this out? Arpita: 29:27 You know, reAlicetically, I would say like many years, but given that we're talking about these brilliant scientists, like six months? Aarati: 29:35 Yeah. It took her less than a year to figure out how to do it. Arpita: 29:39 Of course. Aarati: 29:39 Yeah. Arpita: 29:40 It's like, this is back to our other little snarky comment about just like all these people struggling for, just get a girl to do it. Like she'll do it in less than a year. Aarati: 29:50 In her spare time. Arpita: 29:51 In her spare time. Yeah. She's like, this is a side project for me. I'm going to solve the world's problems. Aarati: 29:56 Yeah. Just a hobby. Something that chemists and physicians have been struggling with. Arpita: 30:01 I'll cure leprosy as a hobby. Aarati: 30:03 Yeah, so, she was able to isolate the two active compounds in chaulmoorga oil, which are chalmoorgic acid and hydnocarpic acid. Okay, so I'm gonna simplify the chemistry a lot here. Arpita: 30:17 Great. Aarati: 30:17 But basically, these active compounds she extracted fall into a category called fatty acids. So, if you look at the molecular structure of these compounds, They're both long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms that are not soluble in water. So Alice was able to modify and react these fatty acids with ethanol, and in both cases she transformed them from fatty acids into ethyl esters. So they are now soluble in water, but because she didn't change them too much, they still retained their therapeutic properties. Arpita: 30:57 Is this chemistry lesson Aarati's brother approved? Aarati: 31:00 Yes, it is. I, I talked to him a lot about this. Actually, I was like, what, what is happening? How is she able to do this? And to be fair, a lot of it went over my head. Um, it sounded like the main thing I needed to know was that she transformed them from one category of molecules called fatty acids into another category called ethyl esters. And these ethyl ester compounds that she created were now water soluble. The ethyl ester compound worked like a bactericide, killing the mycobacterium that caused leprosy. And now the active compounds of chalmoorga oil could be injected safely into patients with minimal side effects. And, again, this is something no other chemist in the world had been able to work out, so. Arpita: 31:50 So they're still injecting it, they're not, it's not oral. They're just injecting it and then it's systemic? Aarati: 31:57 Yeah, so now that it's water soluble, it's able to be absorbed into the bloodstream a lot easier. It wouldn't sit under the, under the skin and form a blister anymore, so it would just be a nice little injection, um, that would just go into your bloodstream now. So it wasn't a complete cure, but throughout the 1920s and 30s, it became the only truly effective treatment available for leprosy. It was as close to a cure as anyone had gotten until in the 1940s, an antibiotic was developed. And in many cases, it did actually help patients to fight off the disease completely. In Hawaii, one physician reported that 78 patients had been discharged from Kalihi Hospital and were able to completely avoid being exiled. Arpita: 32:42 Wow, that's huge. Aarati: 32:44 Yeah, yeah. So they received the treatment and then they were able to go back to their lives. Um, and soon the people who had been exiled and underwent the treatment were also able to be cured and leave the colony and go back to their families and lives. Arpita: 32:58 Oh, yeah. No more island for them. Aarati: 33:01 Yeah, exactly. It's like, hey, we actually have a treatment now. Arpita: 33:04 You can come back. Aarati: 33:05 Um, that might work. You can come back. Exactly. So, stories like this were happening all over the world. Unfortunately, though, Alice never got to see any of this because before she could even publish her work, she fell sick. She returned home to Seattle and was treated for a few months, but sadly, on December 31st, 1916, she passed away. Arpita: 33:27 She was so young. Aarati: 33:29 She was only 24. Arpita: 33:31 Oh my god. Aarati: 33:31 Yeah. Arpita: 33:31 What was her illness? Aarati: 33:34 The cause of her death is up to some debate. Um, her death certificate officially cites tuberculosis. But apparently, there was some evidence that it had been altered, like, that wasn't what was written originally. Um, and we don't know what was written originally, or why it was altered, or who altered it, like, we don't know. Arpita: 33:55 Oh, shady. Aarati: 33:56 Yeah. Um, there are many other articles and sources that suggest she actually died from inhaling chlorine gas while she was demonstrating how to properly wear a chlorine gas mask. Uh, because we're in the middle of World War I, so chlorine gas was being used as a chemical weapon. So, it's plausible that she was, you know, demonstrating how to wear a gas mask and accidentally inhaled chlorine. Also at this time, ventilation hoods were not mandatory in the university's labs. So... Arpita: 34:29 yeah, a lot of toxins. I, I don't know, maybe are we going to pivot and this is going to become a murder mystery podcast because it sounds kind of along that line. Aarati: 34:39 I have some thoughts because here's, here's where the story gets really dramatic actually. So allow me to introduce two new sinister characters into this episode, Arthur Dean and Richard Wrenshall. So both of them were also chemists at the University of Hawaii. Arthur Dean in particular had been Alice's graduate study advisor and president of the university. So he naturally knew all about Alice's work. And when she died, he took over her project. He did a few more trials, made some minor tweaks to the process, and then Dean and Wrenshall published it in 1920 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society without giving Alice any credit for her work. Arpita: 35:25 Typical. Aarati: 35:26 Yeah. They didn't list her as a contributor, they did not mention her at all, and they even called the process the Dean Method after Arthur Dean. Arpita: 35:36 Stop. That's so annoying. Wait, this is the leprosy thing that they published. Aarati: 35:40 Yes. Arpita: 35:40 That she figured out, but they have now passed it off as their own work. Aarati: 35:43 Yeah. Arpita: 35:44 And she's also died mysteriously. Aarati: 35:46 Exactly. So I was like can I just like put on my conspiracy theory hat for a moment here? Arpita: 35:53 Yeah, have you read, um, have you read Yellow Face? Aarati: 35:56 No, I haven't. Arpita: 35:57 Okay, this is not a spoiler for any audience member, but there's this book that I read very recently, um, I will look up the author, it's R. F. Wong, I think, um, and the premise of the story is there's this author and she has a best friend who is Asian American. The author is white, they're both authors. The friend writes this bestseller book. The main character in the story is very jealous. The friend mysteriously dies, leaving behind an unpublished manuscript, which the main character passes off as her own. And I'm like, hmm, some parallels here, maybe? Aarati: 36:38 Yeah, it does sound like eerily similar. Arpita: 36:41 And that was a fiction story that I just read. This is real life. Aarati: 36:45 This is real life, yeah. I mean, it did make me wonder, like, I, I'm not going to go so far as to saying, like, Arthur Dean killed Alice Ball or anything, like, but it does, it did give me pause, it did make me wonder if even, like, if the university was even somehow indirectly responsible for changing Alice's death records, because if it was true that she died from inhaling chlorine gas in the chemistry labs at the university, and the same university is now saying we have a treatment for leprosy that might open some questions as to like how safe the labs are and like, you know, it just kind of puts a black spot on the university's reputation. Um, and I don't know, I kind of wondered if like, maybe they were just like, if we just say it was tragic, she died from tuberculosis and, um, it has nothing to do with the safety of our labs or anything, then. Arpita: 37:43 Yeah, there's like a, it's like a cover your ass kind of moment. Aarati: 37:45 Yeah, so I just kind of had a, like, I had no evidence for this at all. Arpita: 37:52 Your, your detective work didn't yield any results, Aarati? Aarati: 37:56 No, it didn't, unfortunately. I was just like, wait a minute. But everyone is just very tight lipped about it. They're just like, it says she died from tuberculosis on her death records, but there's evidence that it changed. Arpita: 38:09 This feels like it's like primed for a late night, you know, murder mystery, tell all that I would want, like you watch on a Friday night, you know? Aarati: 38:17 Yeah! It's, it's very dramatic Arpita: 38:20 The untold story of Alice Ball. Aarati: 38:22 Yeah, exactly. Um, so throughout the 1920s and 30s demand for the treatment was just going through the roof. Arthur Dean started mass producing the treatment and was shipping it everywhere around the world and people were praising him for being the one to help so many people. When really he's just capitalizing on this discovery that Alice made. The only other person who knew the truth about what had really happened was Harry Hollmann, the physician who had reached out to Alice to help him. Um, so he tried to set the record straight by publishing a paper called"The Fatty Acids of Chaulmoorga Oil in the Treatment of Leprosy and Other Diseases" in the Journal Archives of Dermatology in 1922. In the paper, he gave Alice full credit for her discovery and coined the term"The Ball Method". He compared"The Ball Method" with"The Dean Method", but Harry wrote,"I cannot see that there is any improvement whatsoever over the original technique as worked out by Miss Ball. The original method will allow any physician in any asylum for lepers in the world with little study to isolate and use the ethyl esters of chaulmoorga fatty acids in treating his cases, while the complicated distillation in vacuo will require very delicate and not always obtainable apparatus. Arpita: 39:45 So he's really trying to help her out here, or I guess not help her out, but he, he's the good guy. Aarati: 39:52 Yeah, he, he really was trying to give her full credit. He said, I think I read somewhere also, like he said, he did have this problem, he reached out to Alice and she solved it for him. Arpita: 40:04 So then how did people react? Did people, were people accepting of this? Did people read this? Aarati: 40:09 Not really. Um. Well, it doesn't sound like it got much attention. People were just giving Arthur Dean all the credit for doing everything. Arpita: 40:18 Seems like a little too little too late. Aarati: 40:20 Yeah. So she never really, she never really got credit for her work. Um, and for decades, her remarkable achievement and contribution to science went unnoticed. Until about 50 years later in the 1970s. A professor at the University of Hawaii, Kathryn Takara, who taught African American and African Studies, came across Alice Ball's work in the university archives while she was studying about Black women in Hawaii. And around the same time, a retired federal worker, Stanley Ali, was doing research on Black people in Hawaii and came across Alice Ball's records. So, Takara and Ali pieced together Alice Ball's history. And they're really the reason that we know about her story at all today, like, the work that they did. Arpita: 41:10 Yeah, because it kind of got buried. Like, this became such a huge thing, and... Aarati: 41:15 Yeah. Arpita: 41:16 We're back to the white man who is making this a really huge thing, so it makes really perfect sense that they had to piece it together, because it was probably, like, you know, not entirely... because she didn't get a chance to publish, right? Aarati: 41:32 Yeah. Arpita: 41:33 Harry published it posthumously, so they had to like, figure out her notes and like, what did she discover? Aarati: 41:38 Yeah, that's what it sounds like to me. Like, they had to, they found Harry's paper from 1922, where he gave Alice credit, and then maybe they found her notes or something. But, they, they really were the ones who put together her history, and that's why we even know about her, otherwise she would have just been completely lost. So, on February 29th, in 2000, the University of Hawaii finally honored Alice Ball by placing a plaque by the only Chalmourga tree on campus. And the former Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii, Mazie Hirono, declared February 29th to be Alice Ball Day. In 2022, the Governor of Hawaii changed that to February 28th. Arpita: 42:22 Oh, so that we don't celebrate it once every four years? Aarati: 42:24 Yeah, exactly. That's what I was hoping. I was like... Arpita: 42:29 Interesting choice that she put it on the one day that doesn't happen every year. Aarati: 42:33 Yeah. Arpita: 42:33 Okay. Aarati: 42:34 But that is actually a big part of why I wanted to do this story now, because it is a leap year so... Arpita: 42:39 it is a leap year, yeah. Aarati: 42:40 We're gonna get... Arpita: 42:41 Very timely. Aarati: 42:42 Yes. We're gonna get the 28th and the 29th. Arpita: 42:45 We're gonna get actual Alice Ball day. Aarati: 42:47 Yes. Well, I say we should just celebrate her on both days. Why not? Arpita: 42:50 Yeah, two Alice Ball days. Aarati: 42:52 She deserves it after being overlooked for 50 years. Yeah. Arpita: 42:55 Should we, should we buy some kava root pills and celebrate? Aarati: 42:58 Oh my gosh, yes. We should do that. See, and just as a tribute to her. It's purely as a tribute. Arpita: 43:08 Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. We're going to get, we're going to have, um, drunken effects of the mind. What does she say? It's for science. And Black History Month, so can't fight us on that. Aarati: 43:19 Exactly. In 2007, the University Board of Regents gave Alice a Medal of Distinction, which is the highest honor they can give. The University of Hawaii Foundation also started the Alice Augusta Ball Scholarship for students pursuing a degree in chemistry, biology, or microbiology. And in 2020, a short film called The Ball Method was made by director Dagmawi Abebe. Recently, there's also been a push from the student government at the University of Hawaii to rename the Earth Sciences Building from Dean Hall to Alice Ball Hall. So, I fully support that. Arpita: 44:00 Seems like it should happen. That seems like a no brainer. Aarati: 44:02 Yes. So, good luck with that. I fully support that effort. But yeah, that's, that's the story of Alice Ball. I mean, so many of the articles that I read also mentioned, like, what a shame it was that she died so young, because she accomplished all of this by the time she was 24. And so, I mean... Arpita: 44:23 It's like, she really had like only a few short years where she was you know, able to make all these scientific discoveries. So, I mean, who knows what she would have accomplished if she had been alive for longer. Aarati: 44:33 I don't know. Maybe this episode would be like three times longer than it is. So. Arpita: 44:39 But you know, I maintain that there's There's something to be found here. Like, I don't, I don't know what can really be done, but I, I maintain that there's an interesting story to be discovered here. Aarati: 44:51 Yeah, I think, I think there could still be some, there's still some unanswered questions here. I don't know if we'll ever find the answers to them, but we, we lost a very bright mind at a very young age, which is always tragic, but, um. Arpita: 45:05 Yeah. Aarati: 45:05 So glad, so glad that she finally got the accolades that she deserved, so, yeah. Arpita: 45:11 Definitely, I feel like there's been more of this in the media and I really am enjoying it, like, I do think I mean, in any case, I think everyone would agree that credit should be given where it's due, and I like these sort of redemption stories of, you know, like, it's like, no, but actually, is kind of how I'm reading the story, and I really love that, even if it's happening like posthumously, and like, she's not able to see this, I do think there's, Like, correcting the universe's energy, which I really appreciate, which is really cool. And I feel like there's been more of that in the media, and I'm fully here for it. Aarati: 45:45 Yeah, definitely. It's very important. Arpita: 45:47 Great story, Aarati. I really like that. Aarati: 45:49 Thank you. And thank you all for listening. Arpita: 45:52 Thanks for listening. If you have a suggestion for a story we should cover or thoughts you want to share about an episode, reach out to us at smart tea podcast dot com. You can follow us on Instagram at Twitter at Smart Tea Podcast and listen to us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Sources for this Epsiode

1.Wermager, Paul; Carl, Heltzel (1 February 2007). Heltzel, Carl; Tinnesand, Michael; et al. (eds.). "Alice A. Ball: Young Chemist Gave Hope to Millions" (PDF). ChemMatters. Washington, D.C., United States of America. 25 (1): 17–19. ISSN 0736-4687OCLC 9135366. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 July 2014. Retrieved 22 June 2021.

2. Brewster, Carisa D. "How the Woman Who Found a Leprosy Treatment Was Almost Lost to History." National Geographic. Published February 28, 2018.

3. Ricks, Delthia. "Overlooked No More: Alicce Ball, the Chemist Who Created a Treatment for Leprosy". New York Times. Published April 8, 2023. 

4. Wong, Kathleen M. "The Trailblazing Black Woman Chemist Who Discovered a Treatment for Leprosy". Smithsonian Magazine. Published March 23, 2022.

5. Tani, Carlyn L. "Why Don't More of Us Know Her Name? Alice A Ball is Hidden in History." Honolulu Magazine. Published October 13, 2021.

6. "Alice Ball".  Wikipedia

7. "The History of Hansen's Disease in Hawaii". National Park Service. Published November 9, 2022.

8. “How was it made? The Daguerreotype | V&A”.  Victoria and Albert Museum.

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