Race to Develop Insulin Brought Out Worst in Some Scientists

A century later, some researchers are best remembered for their belligerent quest for glory
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 12, 2022 7:30 AM CST
History of Insulin Offers a Primer in Scientific Egotism

Of the roughly 420 million humans who live with diabetes, some 150 million rely on insulin "to live a full and healthy life," per Diabetes Canada. Few if any know names like Frederick Banting or John Macleod, though they were the two men who received the Nobel prize in 1923 for discovering insulin—much to Banting's fury. Kersten Hall takes a deep dive into that discovery for the Conversation, surfacing a tale "of monstrous egos, toxic career rivalries, and injustices." Until the 1900s, diabetes was typically a death sentence preceded by prolonged suffering. The discovery that a hormone produced by the pancreas could bring down diabetics' sky-high blood sugar levels laid the groundwork for what would be a momentous medical discovery—how to produce insulin.

Hall spins a tale with a number of players: Banting, a Canadian doctor who had an idea for how to isolate the hormone; Macleod, a professor of physiology at the University of Toronto who Banting took his idea to; Charles Best, the partner Macleod paired Banting with to make and test the pancreatic extracts; and Leonard Thompson, the 14-year-old the two men first injected on Jan. 11,1922. That injection triggered a toxic but not fatal reaction. Enter James Collip, a biochemist colleague who removed the impurities from Banting and Best's extract. The injection Thompson got on Jan. 23—Collip's formulation—worked. Hall goes into detail on the friction: Banting thought Macleod was undeserving of the Nobel and improperly claimed credit. Banting did give credit and half his prize money to Best, but their relationship unraveled spectacularly, and Best went on to steamroll Collip. (The full read is a fascinating one.)

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