The brilliance of Leo-Alice Ball

Alice was an American chemist developer of the ‘Ball Method’, the most effective treatment for leprosy in the early 20th century. The daughter of a photographer, she took two BSc degrees at the University of Washington; pharmaceutical chemistry (1912) and the science of pharmacy (1914).  She published a 10-page article with her tutor William Dehn, ‘Benzoylations in Ether Solution’, in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Publishing an article in a respected scientific journal was unheard of for a Black woman at that time.

from the Journal of the American Chemical Society 1914, 36, 10, 2091-2101.

We do not have her birth time but Alice’s chart shows her brilliance. The Moon’s position may vary up to six degrees, but it would still be in Leo. Alice has her Sun, Moon and Mercury in Leo showing her courage (in pursuing her dreams). Leo Sun can show brilliance in any field, interestingly, Rosalind Franklin (who first photographed and identified the DNA molecule) had a stellium in Leo. Alice was also innovative and bold, her Mercury trines a pioneering, risk taking Jupiter in Aries which insists that the native occupies a large stage in her world. While her scientific, analytical and determined Mars in Aquarius trines the Pluto Neptune conjunction in Gemini giving intelligence of a transformative (Pluto) and inspired (Neptune) kind. A Leo Sun will give supreme confidence and dignity in the face of prejudice and lesser minds and as fixed fire will not be diverted from their purpose. We can only imagine the kinds of prejudice, obstruction and sabotage Alice was subject to as a Black woman in a white, male dominated profession. Indeed, the square of Sun and possibly Moon to Uranus in Scorpio suggests deceit and power-grabbing (Scorpio) and cutting ties (Uranus) as we shall see below.

Alice Ball 24.7.1892. (no time) used 12:00 Seattle Washington.

Ball was offered many postgraduate scholarships. She chose the College of Hawai’i (now the University of Hawai’i) to study for a Master’s degree in chemistry. Her thesis was on the chemical properties of the Kava plant species (Piper methysticum). In 1915 she became the first woman and first Black American to graduate with a Master’s degree from the University of Hawai’i. Ball was also the first African American research chemist and tutor in the University of Hawai’i’s chemistry department. Alice was approached by Dr. Harry T. Hollmann to study chaulmoogra oil which was the best treatment for leprosy at that time. Leprosy or Hansen’s Disease was a highly stigmatised disease which was considered incurable. People diagnosed with leprosy were exiled to the Hawaiian island of Molokai and left to die.

The leper colony Kalawao, Molokai, once the “Land of the Living Death,” where lepers are now treated with remarkable success by the new chaulmoogra oil specific. Upon this beautiful peninsulas the stricken live out their lives, one of the most charming scenic localities in Hawai’i. 1922. Public domain.

The best treatment available at that time was chaulmoogra oil extracted from the seeds of the Hydnocarpus tree growing in the Indian subcontinent, which had been used medicinally from as early as the 1300s. But the treatment was difficult to administer. It was too sticky to apply as an ointment, when injected the thickness of the oil made lumps and blisters under the skin. The acrid taste made patients vomit so oral administration was difficult.

Chaulmoogra trees in India (Hydnocarpus annamensis): 2009. Public domain. Photo by Luuthiluong.

In 1915 Alice developed a technique to make the oil injectable and absorbable by the body. She isolated the esters from the oil and chemically modified them, producing a substance that both retained the oil’s therapeutic properties and was easily absorbed when injected.

Unfortunately, Alice died on December 31, 1916, at age 24. She may have been poisoned by chlorine gas after demonstrating in the lab how to use a gas mask in preparation for an attack. Or from tuberculosis, which has been added to her death certificate.

Arthur L. Dean, a chemist and later the president of the University of Hawai’i took over her work and without giving her credit, he published her findings, and began producing large quantities of the injectable chaulmoogra extract. He named the technique after himself. In 1920, a physician reported that seventy eight patients had been discharged from Kalawaho, Molokai Leper colony after treatment with injections of Ball’s modified chaulmoogra oil, an extraordinary result. The Ball Method was the preferred treatment for leprosy until sulphonamide drugs were developed in the 1940s.

It is interesting that Alice’s invention gave life after death to sufferers of leprosy, who had previously been consigned to die on the leper colony. Alicia herself also had a life after death. 103 years after she died, a plaque was raised in her honour at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to go alongside Florence Nightingale and Madame Curie. Where would we find this longevity in her chart? In 1920 when the Journal of the American Medical Association published her research (under Dean’s name) Neptune (deceit) was transiting around her Moon at 9’ Leo, and Jupiter was around that degree and later conjunct her Mercury at 28’Leo (fame/publishing). Which I think highlights her work being brought to the public eye (Mercury/Jupiter) but at the same time obscured (Neptune).

It was not until years after her death that Hollmann attempted to correct this injustice. He published a paper in 1922 giving credit to Alice, calling the injectable form of the oil the ‘Ball Method’. Due to the nature of publishing in academic journals, we can assume Hollmann submitted or wrote the expose the year before, in 1921. In September 1921 there was a Jupiter Saturn conjunction at 26’ Virgo exactly conjunct her natal Saturn at 26’10. Longevity, of course is associated with Saturn, and truth with Jupiter. So truth about her research on a plant for a disease (Virgo) would fit here. At the same time Pluto (the bombshell) was conjunct her Venus around 10’ Cancer. Doubtless, in the academic world this revelation would have been explosive (Pluto), although Dean remained in post. What is particularly interesting is that the Full Moon of October 1921 fell on her Jupiter (perhaps when the article was accepted for publication) and in March 1922 the Full Moon was conjunct her Saturn, perhaps near the publication date. The New Moon in August 1922 was conjunct her Mercury at 28’ Leo and the New Moon the next month of September was conjunct her Saturn at 27’ Virgo. These lunations reinforced the Jupiter Saturn theme of truth and justice (Jupiter) and legacy (Saturn) for her research (Mercury).

However, within the scientific community Alicia was forgotten until in the 1970s, when Kathryn Takara and Stanley Ali, professors at the University of Hawai’i, found Alice’s research in the University archives. On 6th September 2019 Alice given a pride of place with Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale on the façade on the Keppel Street entrance of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, see video here for her contribution to global health research.  On that day, Jupiter was opposite her Uranus at 4’ Taurus, perhaps showing the truth (Jupiter) was finally out, Uranus was conjunct her brilliant, pioneering Mars at 13’ Aquarius, Neptune was opposite her Sun at 1’ Aquarius and Pluto was opposite her natal Pluto Neptune conjunction at 7’ Gemini. All of which speaks to me of revealing the truth, making her famous (Jupiter) and acknowledging her invention (Uranus, Mars).

Stonemason carving Alice Ball into frieze: Picture credit Stonewest.

In 2000, the University of Hawaii dedicated a plaque to Alice in front of the only chaulmoogra tree on campus and named February 29th as Alice Ball day. On that day Uranus and Venus were conjunct her Mars at 15’ Aquarius and the North node was conjunct her Sun and perhaps her Moon, showing her work lives on. One hundred years later Alice received the recognition she deserves.

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