The University of Toronto research team that discovered insulin.

Diabetes is a deadly disease if untreated, as first noted by the Ancient Egyptians around 1500 B.C.E. Still, until the 1920s, there was no useful treatment other than extremely restrictive diets which would usually only prolong the inevitable, as adults would usually survive only two years after symptoms began and children often only lived for a matter of months. In 1914, Rockefeller Hospital opened a ward to treat diabetes using a starvation diet of fewer than 500 calories a day that could sometimes extend life while also studying how the body breaks down food and what organs are problematic within diabetes patients. They discovered that dogs who had their pancreas removed developed sudden cases of diabetes, so doctors began to investigate the link in humans.

Banting And Macleod

In 1920, a young physician named Frederick Banting took a special interest in the pancreas. He learned about a unique and little-understood hormone regulated in the organ called insulin and, suspecting that extractions of this hormone could treat diabetes, took his ideas to his alma mater, the University of Toronto. He consulted a researcher named John McLeod. Although he was skeptical at first, he decided to let Banting try his college days because there was enough space in his lab.

Early Success

Bunting began experimenting with dogs with his assistant Charles Best. They showed that pancreatic extract kept dogs alive, but the study was cumbersome and did not meet the standards recognized by the medical community. Pharmacist James Collip intervened in the purification of insulin extracts, but chose to use cows rather than man’s best friend for the job.

With Colip’s contribution, human experimentation began in his 1922, when his 14-year-old boy named Leonard Thompson was treated with experimental hormones in a Toronto hospital. After an initial allergic reaction to some pollutants, a second dose two weeks later saved young Thompson’s life. In August of the same year, they treated the U.S. Secretary of State’s daughter, Elizabeth Hughes, who made a full recovery and lived well into her seventies.

Bickering And Breakthrough

But it wasn’t all sunshine and splashes. Tensions erupt between the overworked team, and Colip actually threatens Bunting to keep his cleaning method a secret, and Bunting nearly attacks Colip, only to be stopped by Best before any real violence occurs. was done. Fortunately, they were able to recant their claims and announce their breakthrough to much fanfare at the American Medical Association on May 3, 1922. Banting and MacLeod both won his 1923 Nobel Prize in Medicine and kindly shared the award with Best and Colip. Because they all worked together as a team.

Lacking the quantity and purity of the slaughterhouse approach, pharmaceutical companies quickly set out to develop methods for producing insulin. All over the world, people are waking up from diabetic coma, and parents are watching children who were once on the brink of starvation and death grow up to be normal, happy children. What was once a death sentence has become, after just over three years of painstaking work by the Toronto team, a treatable disease, and today people with diabetes can expect to live full and long lives.