There are some lessons from the discovery of insulin which the modern, ultra-conservative medical community does not want to learn. First, it refuses to consider the countless diabetic lives saved by the ability of Banting in those days to go from discovering insulin in the Fall of 1921 to testing it on real patients in the Winter of 1922, while today there would be a good decade of tests for safety and effectiveness before the drug would be approved. Delay often costs more than it is worth, but try telling the FDA that. For example, Charles Evans Hughes, a prominent American political figure of the time and former presidential candidate, bribed train guards to let insulin for his daughter pass from Canada to the United States, so if a near president has to resort to customs offenses to provide drugs for his dying daughter, what does that say about the legitimacy of our highly restrictive laws today?
There is also the fact that when the chemical expert helping Banting and Best, Dr. Collip, forgot the procedure he had followed and failed to record for isolating insulin, Banting was so enraged at him that he physically attacked him. There should be a statute erected on the University of Toronto campus illustrating this combat, since this would show the urgency of medical progress.
There is also the sour grapes of people like Paulescu in Romania who claimed he deserved some of the Nobel Prize money for the discovery of insulin since he had in fact found it in 1914 but had forgotten about it because of World War I and so failed to advance his claims during the war years and beyond. Forgotten about insulin because of the war?! That crime alone should bar him from even having gotten an honorable mention from the Swedish Academy. Better claims could have been advanced by Dr. Zeuzler in Berlin, who in 1906 isolated insulin and injected it into a patient, but then mistook the patient’s violent reaction to it for an anaphylactic shock resulting from the foreign protein in his blood, when in fact what he observed was insulin hypoglycemia.
Interestingly, while looking through the University of Toronto science library I found an article on the physiology of the pancreas published in 1920 that was full of comments in pencil and I could not help but think that this may have been an article Banting read in preparation for his work. If the electronic transformation of academic libraries hasn’t removed it by now, it should still be there on the shelves for some researcher to consult.
It is also instructive to observe how stubborn and stupid medicine could be in response to insulin, just as it is today in its hyper-conservatism. So, for example, a famous Cleveland diabetes institute refused until 1926 to allow its patients to use insulin on the theory that it would just cause them to fail to adhere to their diet! This is just like the reasoning I heard from one prominent figure at the Joslin’s Clinic in 1966 when I was diagnosed, that diabetics should not use soft drinks with artificial sweeteners because they would ‘just keep alive the taste for sweets.’ Finally, I encountered the ridiculous conservatism of medical science again at the Yale history of medicine library, where I found a medical journal from 1926, four years after the discovery of insulin, containing a long and serious article about how diabetes was probably just a problem with the stomach being unable to digest food!