Banner headlines greeted the news 61 years ago that a Canadian research team had discovered insulin. For the first time there was hope for the many victims of diabetes, an incurable and fatal flaw in the body's metabolism of carbohydrates. In the summer of 1922 hundreds of stretcher-borne living skeletons made their way to Toronto as to some latter-day Lourdes. Treated by Dr. Frederick G. Banting, the country doctor turned medical researcher, they soon gained weight and strength, rose from their beds and walked. In the intense press coverage of these events, particularly Paul De Kruif's 1923 account for the Hearst newspapers, the myth of a hero was born.
But Fred Banting was only human, as we learn from Michael Bliss, a historian at the University of Toronto. Using previously unpublished, suppressed or privately circulated documents, Bliss sets forth the full story of the epochal discovery. It is a tale of frustration, tension and acute personal rivalry. One can only feel sympathy for the head of the laboratory at the University of Toronto, Prof. J.J.R. Macleod, who guided an unruly team to success.
In November 1920 Banting, a surgeon in western Ontario, approached Macleod with a somewhat vague research proposal: Perhaps a secretion from one dog's pancreas could be obtained that would relieve the diabetic symptoms of another dog whose pancreas was not working. The approach seemed worth investigating. Because Banting lacked laboratory experience, Macleod appointed a skilled student, Charles Best, to assist him. Macleod further gave Banting specific instructions for the summer's research, helped him perform his first pancreatectomy, and corresponded regularly with Banting and Best while on vacation. Despite a great loss of dogs, the summer's work showed some success, and on Macleod's return, Banting demanded a salary and improved working conditions.
When Macleod hesitated, Banting's reaction was intemperate. His grudge grew over the following months, as Macleod spoke proudly of "our" work, added the biochemist J.B. Collip and others to the research team, and finally turned the whole laboratory over to the search for insulin. Banting was convinced that Macleod was merely trying to steal credit for the work.
By January 1922, Bliss writes, "Macleod had become the quarterback of the team. Collip seemed to be doing all the running with the ball." While Banting and Best conducted longevity experiments in dogs, Collip was assigned to prepare a purified extract from a beef pancreas. He discovered that at high concentrations of alcohol, fairly pure insulin precipitated out of solution. Collip had it. After consulting with Macleod, he informed the hotheaded Banting of his intention to leave the group and to take out a patent on his process. Recalling the scene that followed, one of their coworkers later drew a cartoon of Banting sitting atop Collip and choking him. The caption read, "The Discovery of Insulin."
Peace was restored, and clinical tests of Collip's extract began immediately on humans. Banting despaired of getting any credit. His fiance' broke off their engagement. He began to drink himself comatose every night, using 190-proof alcohol brought home from the laboratory.
The loyal Best convinced him to snap out of it. And, needless to say, Banting did get credit--more than he deserved, as Bliss' book makes clear. (Whether Macleod deserved half of the 1923 Nobel prize for the discovery remains an open question.) Collip, who did not share in the public honors heaped on Banting, would write a few years later, "The whole research with its aftermath has been a disgusting business."
The book has moments of pure delight. Bliss quotes extensively from the letters of one of Banting's first patients, Elizabeth Hughes, the 15-year-old, 45-pound and very brave daughter of U.S. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes. We see Banting and Best relaxing in the lab, frying eggs over a Bunsen burner. Thoroughly researched and well written, "The Discovery of Insulin" deserves a place on the bookshelf alongside such eye-openers as James Watson's "The Double Helix" and Nicholas Wade's "The Nobel Duel."