The Matilda Effect

By Garen Zartarian

This is the story of Alice Ball, a pharmacology pioneer, whose research led to the most effective treatment of leprosy from the early 20th century up until the 1940s. May this article be a celebration of black history and of women in science.

Scientific research is often compared to ultra-running: a gruelling experience that takes long-term commitment to complete but is compensated by a rewarding feeling, unparalleled to any other. Hence, in the same way that robbing a marathon winner of their gold medal is a criminal act, so is not acknowledging the scientist behind major breakthroughs. 

Alice Ball was born on the 24th of July 1892 in Seattle, Washington. Her parents, like her grandfather, were successful photographers. Despite being quite affluent and well-spoken in society, Ball’s parents still felt pressured to record their race as “White” on her birth certificate, hoping that it would make it easier for their daughter to assimilate into the society of early 20th century America. 

Ball’s interest in science is said to have come from her witnessing her parents’ printing techniques. Her passion and drive culminated in her acquiring two Bachelor’s Degrees from the University of Washington: one in pharmaceutical chemistry and the other in pharmacy. In that time, she also published a ten-page paper alongside her pharmacy instructor. As one would expect, the societal stigma of the time made such a publication in a scientific journal by an African-American woman a rare occurrence. It is quite astounding to note she was only 22 years old by this point and went on to become the first African-American and the first woman to be offered a scholarship to study and then teach at the University of Hawai’i where she completed her Master’s degree in chemistry.

Ball’s thesis revolved around the Kava plant species and it eventually led to her studying chaulmoogra oil, which was used as a treatment against leprosy for centuries in Indian and Chinese traditional medicine. Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium leprae that attacks the nerves which get swollen and result in bloated and discoloured skin, blindness and in very serious cases, paralysis and loss of the extremities of the body.

The issue with the medicinal use of chaulmoogra oil was that every method of its application had adverse effects: injecting it under the skin caused painful blisters; rubbing it on the skin was not effective as it was too sticky; ingesting the oil caused vomiting. It seemed as though there was close to no real treatment, leaving lepers to suffer from pain and disability as well as societal shunning for years. In fact, it was common practice to “exile” patients to leper colonies, such as to Kalaupapa in Hawai’i, in order to prevent mass-spreading in densely populated areas.

Enter Alice Ball. The mastery of her work lay in the successful administration of the chaulmoogra oil. She discovered a way of making it water-soluble which meant that its injection into the body led to effective absorption by cells which counteracted the ever-growing Mycobacterium leprae. This groundbreaking work was done in 1916 and it impacted the lives of hundreds of people, starting with the 78 patients who were discharged from hospital in 1920, the same year the research was officially published.

Alas, tragedy and injustice were not far. In 1916, World War I was raging on and the world was maliciously introduced to the threats of chemical warfare. As a precaution against this, health and safety classes on how to use gas masks were carried out at schools and universities. Alice Ball was directing one of these when she was accidentally exposed to poisonous chlorine gas, which probably caused her death that same year. There is some controversy surrounding her demise, as the true cause is uncertain but also resulted in a major scientific scandal which became a distinctly harrowing example of The Matilda Effect: a bias against women scientists whose work and achievements are attributed to their male colleagues. 

Following her untimely death, Ball’s research was unabashedly stolen by her colleague Arthur L. Dean who, in 1920, published the revolutionary findings and then sold large quantities of the modified chaulmoogra oil all over the world. Moreover, he named the treatment after himself, spared no credit for the principal scientist behind the work and collected a mountain of undeserved praise before being promoted to president of the University of Hawai’i. Only in 1922, six years after Ball’s death, was she briefly mentioned in an account written by her supervisor, Dr. Harry T. Hollmann.

It was proving to be a long, posthumous road to recognition for Alice Ball. In the 1970s, two people set the precedent for the rewriting of the archives. Dr Kathryn Takara and Dr. Stanley Ali, both professors at the University of Hawai’i, were the driving force of an effort that spanned decades and eventually resulted in Ball being celebrated as she is today: in 2000, a plaque was placed on the sole chaulmoogra tree at the University of Hawai’i where she was also posthumously awarded the Medal of Distinction in 2016; every four years, February 29th is celebrated as “Alice Ball Day” and in February of 2020, a short film called The Ball Method, was premiered at the Pan African Film Festival.

Evidently, the scientific community, with all its ingenious and supposedly objective minds, is not impermeable to social and racial prejudice, resulting in cruel injustices such as Alice Ball’s erasure from her own discovery’s reference page. The bulk of the citations in most of the scientific papers from the 20th century are attributed to white, male scientists and that leaves one wondering. 

One thing is clear: unlike the natural rules that science strives to explain, its communication has not always been flawless. However, like science proves to us on every learning day, nothing is unamendable.

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