Short film The Ball Method tells the story of Alice Ball. She helped develop an effective treatment for leprosy, then a senior colleague claimed her work as his own giving her no credit
15 July 2020
Kiersey Clemons plays chemist Alice Ball, known for “the Ball method”
The Ball Method
Amazon Video Direct from August
IN it declared global elimination on that basis in 2000 I think: 2000, the World Health Organization declared that leprosy had been eliminated as a global public health problem, due to effective multi-drug treatments. It is a disease that has long been stigmatised due to disfiguration it can cause. The story of one unsung hero in the development of a treatment for leprosy is told in the short film The Ball Method.
The story starts with archive footage of the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, where thousands of people with leprosy were quarantined from 1866 by the Hawaiian government. Back then, little was known about the disease and people feared it was highly contagious, though we now know it doesn’t spread very easily.
Countries such as the UK, the US and India exiled people with leprosy to remote locations, where they were left to die. One of the film’s clips shows a child covered in sores on his face and hands.
By 1915, when the film is set, one remedy was beginning to show promise. We are introduced to Alice Ball (played by Kiersey Clemons), a chemistry professor at the University of Hawaii, as she visits Kalihi Hospital in Honolulu. Ball has been enlisted to help develop a treatment for leprosy by Dr Harry Hollmann (Kyle Secor) using the oil from the seeds of the chaulmoogra tree. Chaulmoogra oil seemed to work in treating some cases of leprosy and had already been used for centuries in China and India for skin ailments.
Taking the oil orally caused nausea, so it was administered by injection. But this method was flawed. In its unpurified form, chaulmoogra oil isn’t water soluble and doesn’t react well with the body; oil oozes painfully out of the forearm of one patient with leprosy as he is given a shot.
“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.
Director Dagmawi Abebe says this is why he felt it was so important to make the film. “When I came across Alice’s story and saw all the amazing accomplishments she’s done, and how not a lot of people even knew about her, I really wanted to make that known.”
There are few historical records about Ball. She didn’t keep a diary that we know of and died in 1916 aged 24, possibly after inhaling chlorine gas in a lab accident.
So Abebe had to make a lot of choices in how to portray her. He says he wanted to depict her as strong and ambitious given the barriers she is likely to have faced.
Looking at the facts, that doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. 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.
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