April 15, 1923: Insulin goes mainstream

The research of a young Canadian doctor comes to fruition when a refined version of the hormone insulin becomes available to the general public.  A year and a half earlier, Dr. Frederick Banting and a medical student named Charles Best had figured out how to extract insulin from a dog’s pancreas.

That had been a major breakthrough in the treatment of type 1 diabetes, a condition caused by the inability of the body to produce insulin. Most often the victims were children and young adults and the prescribed treatment was a starvation diet. But usually that gained patients only a few extra months of life.

As early as the 19th century, researchers had determined that insulin, a hormone critical to processing carbohydrates, was produced by the pancreas.  Some physicians tried to treat diabetes by feeding fresh pancreas from animals to patients.  That unappetizing treatment didn’t work.

Banting and Best, however, had developed a way to withdraw insulin from a dog’s pancreas.  They worked to refine the substance, but it was described by skeptics as “thick, brown muck.”  Nevertheless, in January, 1922, it had been injected into the buttocks of a 14-year-old boy named Leonard Thompson, who was so sick with diabetes that he had shriveled to 65 pounds.   At first, the boy improved only slightly.  Then, two weeks later, after refining the insulin even more, they tried again.  This time the change was dramatic. Leonard’s blood sugar dropped to a manageable level, he gained weight and ultimately recovered. (He lived another 13 years before dying of pneumonia.)

Soon thereafter, in one of medicine’s more dramatic moments, the doctors injected an entire ward of children dying of diabetes.  Most of them were in comas.  But before the doctors reached the last child, some of the first ones had already awakened.

While they were able to extract larger quantities of insulin from the pancreas of animals, Banting and Best needed help purifying it.  So they began working with Eli Lilly and Company, the Indianapolis-based medical company, and by late in 1922, the chemists there were able to start producing large amounts of highly refined insulin.  By the following spring, insulin is available for diabetes patients throughout North America.

Later in 1923, Banting is awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine, although he is not particularly happy to share it with Dr. John MacLeod, a more senior doctor at the University of Toronto who had authorized Banting’s research and advised him throughout the process.  Banting believed he should share the award with his assistant, Dr. Best, and ended up splitting his prize money with him.

While insulin from animals was considered a major medical advance, it caused allergic reactions in some users. But in 1978, a biotech company named Genentech was able to create a synthetic version of human insulin, and by the early 1980s, it changes forever the treatment of diabetes.

More slices of history

Polio vaccine celebrated:  April 12, 1955
First artificial heart: April 4, 1969
First batch of Coca-Cola: March 29, 1886
Elephant man case presented: March 17, 1885
Flu pandemic begins: March 11, 1918  
Aspirin is born: March 6, 1899 
Discovery of DNA: Feb. 28, 1953 
Alka-Seltzer born: Feb. 21, 1931 
First penicillin shot: Feb. 12, 1941 
Longest surgery: Feb. 4-8, 1951 
First Social Security check: Jan. 31, 1940