The History of the discovery of insulin


Malissa Sarver - Registered Dietitian-KDMC Ohio



Less than 100 years ago the diagnosis of diabetes was a death sentence. Insulin had not been discovered yet and diabetes baffled the medical community. It would be during the oppressively hot summer of 1921 that the world would change forever.

It would be reasonable to believe the discovery of insulin came from a physician who had dedicated their life to the study of diabetes. However, Dr. Frederick Banting, a Canadian surgeon, would be dubbed the Father of Insulin. Dr. Banting completed medical school in 1916 at The University of Toronto Medical School and in February 1917, after his third attempt to enlist for the war due to his poor vision, would leave for World War I an ocean away. As a surgeon in the war, Banting was awarded the Military Cross for operating on many wounded men, all while under German fire and even continuing to operate after shrapnel tore into his interosseous artery.

Once back in Canada, Dr. Banting was reading a medical journal article titled “The Relation of the Islets of Langerhans to Diabetes with Special Reference to Cases of Pancreatic Lithiasis”. Dr. Banting after reading the article went to sleep. At two o’clock in the morning he jumped out of bed and scribbled an idea on paper writing, “Diabetus [sic] Ligate pancreatic ducts of dog. Keep dogs alive till acini degenerate leave islets. Try to isolate the internal secretion of these to relieve glycosuria [sic]”. Dr. Banting would later say if he had been more familiar with the study of diabetes, and all of the previous failed attempts to relieve diabetes, he would have never pursued his idea.

Dr. Banting left for Toronto to seek a research opportunity to isolate the substance thought produced from the pancreas. Dr. Macleod met with Dr. Banting and reluctantly agreed to allow him to use a dingy lab not being used over the summer at The University of Toronto. Dr. Banting began his research May 15, 1921 with the help of 22 year old biochemistry student research assistant Charlie Best and later Biochemist James Collip joined the pair in their research. Together they were able to keep a dog alive without a pancreas and on January 11, 1922 Leonard Thompson became the first person to receive insulin and was resurrected from near death.

American company Eli Lilly played a critical role in mass producing insulin, from pork and beef, and getting this life saving drug into the hands of many who so desperately needed it. During the summer of 1922 the insulin plant of Lilly hummed 24 hours a day producing the miracle drug. Mr. Lilly said insulin “…is available to the consumer at a price below what the average man spends daily for his cigars or a supply of gasoline for his pleasure automobile. Iletin costs less than three cents a unit thus proving that the humblest man or woman may enjoy its benefits”. Dr. Banting was offered up to $1 million by pharmaceutical companies for the insulin patent, but instead, sold the right to the University of Toronto in 1923 for $1 to help humanity. Amazingly, the development of insulin was less than two years. Today getting a new drug to market takes approximately 10-15 years.

Banting and Macleod were named co-recipients of the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physiology. In 1934 Banting was knighted as Sir Frederick Banting. Sadly, on February 21, 1941, during World War II, Dr. Banting was involved in a plane crash. His one last heroic act was to dress the pilot’s wounds before dying from his own injuries.

Today insulin is synthetic, no longer requiring pork or beef pancreas, relying on bacteria or yeast recombinant DNA technology, and can be made in unlimited supply. November is celebrated as Diabetes Awareness Month with November 14th as World Diabetes Day, in honor of Dr. Frederick Banting’s birthday. Happy birthday Dr. Banting and thank you for all of the lives you continue to save today.

Malissa Sarver

Registered Dietitian-KDMC Ohio

Malissa Sarver is a Registered Dietitian for KDMC Ohio.

Malissa Sarver is a Registered Dietitian for KDMC Ohio.

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