by Dale Moana Gilmartin
Strolling by Bachman Hall, the administration
building of the University of Hawai‘i
at Mānoa, one may overlook a medium sized,
somewhat scruffy tree, which was gingerly
relocated before the construction of the Queen
Lili’uokalani Student Center. A botanical label
identifies the tree as Hydnocarpus anthelmintica,
a native of tropical Asia. Yet it’s the bronze commemorative
plaque at the base that reveals an
extraordinary true tale.
This unprepossessing tree with elongated leaves,
brown fruit, and rough, gray bark was planted on
the campus by King Prajadhipok of Siam in 1935.
While that seems remarkable enough, the tree
was to honor an amazingly gifted scientist, Alice
Augusta Ball, who developed a safe and effective
treatment for leprosy.
Originally hailing from Seattle, Washington,
Alice lived in Hawai‘i as a child and returned
after completing two bachelor’s degrees in
Pharmaceutical Chemistry and the Science of
Pharmacy at the University of Washington. Alice was
fascinated by plant chemistry and wrote her thesis on the
chemical properties of Kava. She was the first female, and
the first African American, to receive a Master’s degree
from the College of Hawai’i (now UH Mānoa) in 1915, and
she was the first female, and the first African American
chemistry professor – all noteworthy accomplishments
she achieved by the tender age of 24.
When he received word of Alice’s considerable
skills as a research chemist, Dr. Harry T. Hollman, a
physician at Kalihi Hospital where leprosy patients
were treated, asked her to study chaulmoogra oil.
Since the 1300s, the oil extracted from the seeds of
the same species of scruffy tree behind Bachman
Hall had been the best available treatment for leprosy,
now known as Hansen’s Disease. Treatment
with the oil was challenging to administer and
produced undesirable side effects for the suffering
patients. Alice’s groundbreaking work led her
to develop a far superior injectable form of the oil,
which improved the lives of many Hansen’s Disease
patients until more effective sulfonamide drugs
were developed in the 1940s.