“Ball was the first woman and first black American at the University of Hawaii to teach chemistry”
In between teaching students at her university, Ball tries to purify the oil into chemical compounds called ethyl esters so it can be successfully injected. To do this, the oil first needs to be converted into fatty acids. Ball has a eureka moment. She realises the acid needs to be frozen overnight to give enough time for the esters to separate, as well as to stop them degrading at room temperature.
Her discovery, the Ball method, led to the most effective treatment for leprosy at the time, one that was used until the 1940s, when a full cure was found. Why, then, is Alice Ball not more famous?
One reason is that credit wasn’t given to her at the time. Ball’s colleague Arthur Dean (played by Wallace Langham), who was president of the University of Hawaii, took her findings as his own, naming the technique the Dean method. There was no mention of Ball in his papers. She didn’t get credit until 1922 when Hollmann published a paper detailing her work.
At only 23, Ball was the first woman and first black American to teach chemistry and obtain a master’s degree at the University of Hawaii. But being a black woman in this environment wasn’t easy. In one scene, as Ball takes a class, students (all male and white) snigger as they pass around a picture of a crudely-drawn monkey.
For Abebe, who is originally from Ethiopia, it was important to highlight this aspect of Ball’s experience. “I’m interested in telling a story where I feel like a lot of minority stories went untold or hidden,” he says. This narrative is at last finding a wider audience.