Tribute to Alice1

Alice Augusta Ball

The world is regularly misled by the way history is written which is often a fraud. The colonizer will redefine the “local culture” and romanticize it for a feel good purpose.

History is supposed to provide knowledge of the larger context within which our lives take place. By understanding the reality of the people who came before us, we can see why we look at the world the way we do, and what our contribution is toward further progress.

Since the winner writes history, that is usually White males and in English. Therefore we have come to understand that so much of our history is invisible.

Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina’s Catholic Church said the United States needed to reexamine its soul and confront racism. “The country’s long history of institutional racism still lingered, despite the advances of the past century, because racism is in the DNA of America,” Father Pfleger said.

To cover the failures, we need only forget the past. Once people are firmly entrenched in the luminal existence of living for the moment, the past becomes almost as seemingly inconsequential for them as the future.

In 1977, University of Hawaii professor Dr. Kathryn Takara was beginning her research on Black women in Hawaii when she came across the name of Alice Augusta Ball.

“Bit by bit, I began to uncover information about her,” Takara recalled.

University of Hawaii president, Dr. Arthur Lyman Dean continued Ball’s research after her death.

When Takara began her research about Ball, she realized how little information there was about the Black scholar.

“I had to dig really hard for it,” she said.

Upon Ball’s untimely death, University of Hawaii president, Dr. Arthur Lyman Dean, continued Ball’s research. He became the namesake of the “Dean Method” and was credited with the discovery of chaulmoogra oil.

“She (Ball) really did all the research,” Takara said. “The Ball Method became his method.”

Dean Hall on the University of Hawaii campus was named after him, and Ball was forgotten.

Beverly Mendheim, an aficionado of Hawaii’s history, was also wondering why she never heard of Alice Augusta Ball. “But after browsing through the Internet, I discovered a story that needs to be told, for Hawaii” Mendheim continued.

Dr. Kathryn Takara

James Presley Ball Sr. a respected 19th century photographer. Ball Sr. resided briefly in Montana, and then moved his family to Seattle where Alice was born on July 24, 1892. She was the third of four children to James Presley Ball Jr., an attorney and his wife Laura. The family lived in Seattle until 1902, when they moved to Hawaii.

They lived in downtown Honolulu, first on Fort Street, then on Nu’uanu Avenue, walking distance to the Iolani Palace and “Washington Place,” the residence of Queen Lili’uokalani.

Alice and her sister Adelaide, attended school at Central Grammar (now Central Intermediate), the former site of Hale Keoua, the residence of Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani.

When her grandfather, James P Ball Sr. died, Alice and her family moved back to the mainland where she attended high school in Seattle. Alice Ball graduated with undergraduate degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry in 1912 and science in 1914, both from the University of Washington She was offered two scholarships in the master’s program—the University of California, Berkeley, and the College of Hawaii (now UH). She chose the latter, perhaps because she was familiar with the Islands. Ball returned to Oahu where she attended the College of Hawaii as its first graduate student.

It is safe to say Alice was a brilliant self-assured young woman. Travelling 2,600 miles alone across the ocean to go to the University of Hawaii at a time when women hardly ventured to town alone. Having attended elementary school in Hawaii, she probably had made many friends on Oahu.

She was not only the first Black student to receive a master’s from the institute, but she was also the first Black woman to graduate with that distinction.

The Ball family home in Hawaii.

“At the College, Alice met Dr. Hollman, acting director of the leprosy clinic in Kalihi, the initial check off point before relocation to Kalaupapa, Moloka’i.” Beverly Mendheim wrote. “Alice’s thesis focused mainly on the awa root, (also called kava). Ball was attempting to extract its active ingredients when Dr. Hollman suggested she also investigate chaulmoogra oil (from the tree native to India). She isolated the ethyl ester of chaulmoogra oil which, when injected, proved extremely effective on leprosy symptoms,” Mendheim continued. “Her chemistry professors were so impressed that upon graduation in June, 1915, she was assigned to teach chemistry at the College. By all accounts, she was the first woman to teach any science at the University of Hawaii.”

In 1916 WWI broke out and everyone in Hawaii had to learn how to use a gas mask. While giving a demonstration to her class, Alice inhaled chlorine gas, used for chemical warfare.

She returned to Seattle for medical treatment and returned to Hawaii in the fall to resume teaching. However, the side effects were so severe that she had to return to Seattle in October where, on Dec. 31, 1916 at the tender age of 24, Alice died.

Her obituary appeared in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin Jan. 1, 1917 where she was remembered by students and faculty as “helpful, cheery, patient, yet optimistic.”

Thanks in part to the exceptional work of Dr. Takara, On Feb. 29, 2000; the University of Hawaii honored the accomplished young woman with a plaque by the chaulmoogra tree that still stands on campus.

Lt. Governor, now Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii named Feb. 29th “Alice Ball Day.” The chemist is now celebrated every four years.

In 2007, Alice Ball was awarded posthumously with the University of Hawaii’s Regents’ Medal of Distinction.

“It’s quite the prestigious award,” Takara said.

Despite Ball’s recent recognition, many believe that more should be done. Students and faculty alike have talked about renaming Dean Hall to Ball Hall.

Dr. Takara remains positive that Ball will soon get her due respect.

W.E.B. Du Bois, an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author and editor identified “white supremacy” as a global phenomenon, affecting the social conditions across the world by means of colonialism. His cause included people of color everywhere, particularly Africans and Asians in their struggles against colonialism and imperialism.

“In the first three decades of the 20th Century, American corporate philanthropy combined with prestigious academic fraud to create the pseudoscience eugenics that institutionalized race politics as national policy. The goal: create a superior, white, Nordic race and obliterate the viability of everyone else.’ – “War Against the Weak” by Edwin Black.

Black Americans have been making contributions to America from the start, but like countless other Americans whose achievements have altered and enriched our lives, these Black Americans remain unknown. It’s important, to point out their contributions because too often people don’t realize that Black Americans have been making contributions to our country from its inception.