Canadian Inventions — Insulin

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Until 1922 diabetes was treated through starvation diets and exercise. Right up until January 22, 1922, having diabetes ruthlessly and inevitably meant blindness, renal failure, heart attacks, strokes, leg amputations and/or a reduced life expectancy.

But on January 23, 1922, Frederick Banting and Charles Best, two Canadian doctors, started human trials using insulin — a naturally occurring hormone that converts sugar into energy — in an effort to find a treatment for the debilitating disease. The first human injected with insulin — taken from the pancreas of dogs — was 14-year old Leonard Thompson*, whose prospects for survival into his 20’s were slim, none and “I’m sorry Mrs. Thompson, your son has passed away.”

But the boys health improved almost immediately, and so did every other diabetic they injected. With insulin reintroduced to their blood stream, diabetics could control their blood sugar level for the first time. Insulin is not a cure, but Banting and Best’s discovery has saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world and improved the quality of life for each and every one of them.

Diabetes is still an evil little bastard of a disease, afflicting 177 million individuals worldwide. It is a Top Five Killer in most countries — usually just behind heart disease and cancer — and is the leading cause of adult blindness, kidney disease, heart attack, stroke and non-traumatic amputations. According to Health Canada “Diabetes is a lifelong condition where either your body does not produce enough insulin, or your body cannot use the insulin it produces. Your body needs insulin to change the sugar from food into energy.”

A relatively recent Health Canada report revealed that “in 1999/2000, 5.1% of Canadians (1,196,370) aged 20 and over were living with diagnosed diabetes”. The death rate among Canadian adults with diabetes, according to the same study, was 1,393 per 100,000. Diabetics, according to the Florida-based Defeat Diabetes Foundation, are 65% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s Disease.

Banting and Best could have made themselves rich through their discovery by seeking a patent for the life-saving serum. Instead, they sold the rights for insulin to the University of Toronto for $1, ensuring that insulin could be cheaply manufactured for decades.

Banting was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923, but did not accept the award until 1925 because Charles Best, his friend and colleague, was not recognized by the Nobel Committee for the work he had performed. The Prize was the first for a Canadian.

“Of the 130 children treated with insulin,” Banting said during his speech to the Nobel Committee, “120 are still living, while of the 164 who did not receive insulin, there are 152 dead. Of the 120 still living, 40% have either not increased or have actually decreased their insulin. Dr. [Elliot] Joslin believes that if the 60% who have had to increase their insulin had received similar treatment, they too would have been able to reduce their insulin.”

Banting split his share of the Nobel Award money with Best, and went one to be knighted in 1934. Soon afterwards he went on to create the world’s first G-suit to help pilots cope with high-speed flight. This led to his appointment in 1939 as the chairman of the National Research Council’s Committee on Aviation Medical Research. He died on Feb. 21, 1941 after his plane crashed in Musgrave Harbour, Newfoundland. Banting was 49 years old.

Charles Best went on to pursue graduate studies and became a professor of physiology at the University of Toronto. He died on March 31, 1978.

November 14, Banting’s birthday, is now recognized as World Diabetes Day. Each year the Canadian Diabetes Association celebrates November 6 as Sir Frederick Banting Day.

The Canadian Diabetes Association estimates that over 2.2 million Canadians live with the disease and roughly one third of that amount are undiagnosed. Symptoms of diabetes include excessive thirst, frequent urination, blurry vision and unexplained weight loss. Without treatment, high sugar levels can damage blood vessels, which sometimes leads to blindness, amputation, renal failure, heart attacks and strokes.

*Leonard Thompson died thirteen years later due to complications from diabetes.


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About Gabriel

I’ve lived in more than fifty places. I've been paid to pick stones out of fields, take backstage photos of Britney Spears, and report on Internet privacy issues. My photos have been published in several newspapers, and a couple of magazines.
This entry was posted in Canada, Canadian Inventions, Canadian News, CSN:AFU Greatest Hits, Diabetes, Health, Native Issues, Reporting, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Canadian Inventions — Insulin

    • Gabriel says:

      I know, right? I am so totally brilliant.

      If you, or someone you know, thinks you might be susceptible to diabetes, I’d suggest contacting the Northeastern Diabetes Co-ordination Centre, located on the corner of Algonquin Blvd. and Rae St. N. in Timmins, Ontario.

      You can find more information here: North East Local Health Integration Network

  1. clau says:

    For the curious ones, just google “the true inventor of insulin”….

    • Gabriel says:

      Okay… I’m assuming you want people to know Nicolae Paulescu “invented” insulin, and not Banting and Best. So now “the curious ones” should also Google “definition: clinical trial”, “suitable for humans”, “definition: invention = something that works” and “anti-Semitic asshole”.

      Just really quickly: [Wiki} “The method used by Paulescu to prepare his pancreatic extract… was similar to a procedure described by the American researcher Israel S. Kleiner in an article published in 1919 in Journal of Biological Chemistry.”

      So I guess we should give some props to Israel.

      Also from Wiki:

      “While Paulescu had patented his technique in Romania, no clinical use resulted from his work, as his saline extract could not be used on humans. The work published by Banting, Best, Collip and McLeod represented the injection of purified insulin extract, after into a diabetic individual ameliorating symptoms of the disease. Not surprisingly, Banting and Macleod received the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of insulin treatment.”

      With these types of ‘natural’ discoveries, it’s the people who make it work in the way it’s supposed to that get the credit. Hard to give out gold stars to people whose work is mostly based on “uhm… maybe it’ll kill the patient, possibly not, I mean, who knows, right?”.

      • clau says:

        Yes, MacCleod and Banting applied firs, but not INVENTED:
        “Without the work of Nicolae Paulescu the history of medicine would probably have a different course, particularly the history of diabetic medicine. The distinguished Romanian scientist was the first to discover insulin (which he called pancreine).

        In 1916 Paulescu developed an aqueous pancreatic extract which normalized the blood sugar levels in a diabetic dog. He had to interrupt his experiments during the World War I till 1921 when he wrote an extensive whitepaper on the effect of the pancreatic extract injected into a diabetic animal: Research on the Role of the Pancreas in Food Assimilation. The paper was published in August 1921 in the Archives Internationales de Physiologie.
        Curiously enough, in 1921 Banting started performing the experiments that led to the “discovery of insulin” on dogs, inspired by the early works of Polish-German physician Oscar Minkowski who in 1889 removed the pancreas from a healthy dog to test its assumed role in digestion.

        If you go back at the beginning of the article you will note that Paulescu was successfully performing the same type of experiments in 1916.

        By the time Banting isolated insulin, Paulescu already held a patent for its discovery. Moreover, Banting was familiar with Paulescu’s work.

        He even uses Paulescu’s “Research on the Role of the Pancreas in Food Assimilation” as reference in the paper that brought him the Nobel, although he misquotes:

        He states that injections into peripheral veins produce no effect and his experiments show that second injections do not produce such marked effect as the first

        This might sound a bit nationalist, but do you honestly believe Banting’s “excuse:”

        I regret very much that there was an error in our translation of Professor Paulescu’s article, I cannot recollect, after this length of time, exactly what happened (…) I do not remember whether we relied on our own poor French or whether we had a translation made. In any case I would like to state how sorry I am for this unfortunate error (…)

        There were obscure times back in the 1920s and I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that the Canadians simply used Paulescu’s work in their own benefit. Banting misquoted Paulescu in his paper – which was obviously detrimental for the Romanian scientist. The Nobel Committee back in 1923 didn’t bother to proof too much the “discoveries” submitted to their attention.

        Recognition After 50 Years

        We have Professor Ian Murray to thank for the international recognition of Paulescu’s work. This followed in 1971, almost 50 years after Paulescu’s discovery of insulin.

        Insufficient recognition has been given to Paulescu, the distinguished Romanian scientist, who at the time when the Toronto team were commencing their research had already succeeded in extracting the antidiabetic hormone of the pancreas and proving its efficacy in reducing the hyperglycemia in diabetic dogs.

        Today this recognition doesn’t serve us much. The discovery of insulin is wrongly attributed to the two Canadian scientists. Almost all publications that write about the discovery of insulin state that:

        Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas. It was isolated in 1921-22 at the University of Toronto.

        Paulescu’s experiments from 1916 are completely ignored. He is not even mentioned on Banting’s biographical site, not even at least as a precursor. I think this is one of those historical injustices that will never be amended.”

        • Gabriel says:


          Look, you’re obviously very emotional about this… and quite possibly very unstable. So I’ll be as brief as as I can be: Banting & Best owe an acknowledgement to the work of Paulescu, which they’ve given. Paulescu, however, owes a great deal to the work of Israel S. Kleiner — an acknowledgement he would never give, because Paulescu believed Jews to be inferior in every way… except in the way that he stole ones ideas.

          [Wiki}”In 1919, at the Rockefeller Institute, Kleiner was one of the first to demonstrate the effect of extracts from the pancreas on animals, causing hypoglycemia. These were the early efforts which eventually helped lead to the discovery of insulin.”

          So, by your logic, it’s Israel Kleiner who discovered / invented insulin, which was later used as a treatment for diabetes in human beings.

          In order to invent the car, someone had to invent the combustible engine. In order to invent the combustible engine, someone had to invent steel… but the guy who invented steel did not invent the car. Only one person invented the car, and only one person (actually two people) completed human trials showing insulin could fight diabetes in human beings.

          I agree, Nicolae Paulescu proved, in no uncertain terms, that diabetic dogs could benefit from insulin treatments. Congratulations, that gets him a footnote on the Banting & Best Wiki page.

  2. clau says:

    If this is a place of insults, the I’ll step off.
    “you’re obviously very emotional about this… and quite possibly very unstable”
    emotional – yes, because I feel something it’s being snatched;
    very unstable – that’s verry unpolite.
    I’ll not comment anymore!
    thankyou for the wiki page footenote. both kind & generous

    To manny wiki page footenotes!

    • Gabriel says:


      Welcome to the Internet. If you had come here and asked something like, I don’t know, “what about the efforts of Paulescu?”, or “Paulescu was jobbed, he really deserves more credit than he got”, or “hey, how about mentioning Paulescu in your lovely, very well written and otherwise well researched piece”, then it’s possible we could have been best buddies.

      But you didn’t. You left a terse little note suggesting my piece was a bunch of crap, then 1000 words saying not much of anything, and then you get pissed off because I referred to you as being ‘possibly unstable’… which I could now offer as proof of your instability.

      So, to sum up, Banting & Best, using research from other scientists — as these things usually happen — were the first to discover / prove insulin could treat diabetes in human beings. Which is the point of this post.

  3. Cezar says:

    Nicolae Paulescu

  4. Cathy says:

    Gabriel, you are worst than those 2 Canadians that stole Paulescu’s invention. He discovered and tested insulin on dogs…such as now, we test all drugs first on animals. And it did work on humans as well, as stated in his published articles and the two Canadians apologized to Paulescu for their bad translation when stealing Paulescu’s work. I understand you are a nationalist and it’s hard to accept this lie but don’d continue this charade.

    New stamp issue – France: The Discovery of Insulin, 1921

    In 1869 Paul Langerhans, a medical student in Berlin, was studying the structure of the pancreas under a microscope when he identified some previously unnoticed tissue clumps scattered throughout the bulk of the pancreas. The function of the “little heaps of cells”, later known as the islets of Langerhans, was unknown, but Edouard Laguesse later suggested they might produce secretions that play a regulatory role in digestion. Paul Langerhans’ son, Archibald, also helped to understand this regulatory role. The term “insulin” origins from insula, the Latin word for islet/island.
    In 1889, the Polish-German physician Oscar Minkowski, in collaboration with Joseph von Mering, removed the pancreas from a healthy dog to test its assumed role in digestion. Several days after the dog’s pancreas was removed, Minkowski’s animal keeper noticed a swarm of flies feeding on the dog’s urine. On testing the urine, they found there was sugar in the dog’s urine, establishing for the first time a relationship between the pancreas and diabetes. In 1901, another major step was taken by Eugene Opie, when he clearly established the link between the islets of Langerhans and diabetes: “Diabetes mellitus… is caused by destruction of the islets of Langerhans and occurs only when these bodies are in part or wholly destroyed.” Before his work, the link between the pancreas and diabetes was clear, but not the specific role of the islets.
    Over the next two decades, several attempts were made to isolate whatever it was the islets produced as a potential treatment. In 1906, George Ludwig Zuelzer was partially successful treating dogs with pancreatic extract, but was unable to continue his work. Between 1911 and 1912, E.L. Scott at the University of Chicago used aqueous pancreatic extracts, and noted “a slight diminution of glycosuria”, but was unable to convince his director of his work’s value; it was shut down. Israel Kleiner demonstrated similar effects at Rockefeller University in 1915, but his work was interrupted by World War I, and he did not return to it.
    Nicolae Paulescu, a Romanian professor of physiology at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest, was the first to isolate insulin, in 1916, which he called at that time, pancrein, by developing an aqueous pancreatic extract which, when injected into a diabetic dog, proved to have a normalizing effect on blood sugar levels. He had to interrupt his experiments because the World War I and in 1921 he wrote four papers about his work carried out in Bucharest and his tests on a diabetic dog. Later that year, he detailed his work by publishing an extensive whitepaper on the effect of the pancreatic extract injected into a diabetic animal, which he called: “Research on the Role of the Pancreas in Food Assimilation”.
    Only 8 months later, the discoveries he published were copied (or, as some say, confirmed) by doctor Frederick Grant Banting and biochemist John James Rickard Macleod, who were later awarded the Nobel prize for the discovery of insulin in 1923, which Paulescu discovered as early as 1916. By the time Banting also isolated insulin, Paulescu already held a patent for his discovery and he was the first to secure the patent rights for his method of manufacturing pancreine/insulin (April 10, 1922, patent no. 6254 (8322) “Pancreina şi procedeul fabricaţiei ei”/”Pancrein and the process of making it”, from the Romanian Ministry of Industry and Trade). Moreover, Banting was very familiar with Paulescu’s work, he even used Paulescu’s “Research on the Role of the Pancreas in Food Assimilation” as reference in the paper that brought him the Nobel.
    Paulescu Controversy
    It is often said that the cause for not being recognised as the true inventor of insulin is because he expressed antisemitic and anti-masonic views. In 2003, following protests from several Jewish organizations, the inauguration of his bust at the Hôtel-Dieu State Hospital in Paris, scheduled for August 27, was cancelled. Also, the French Minister of Health, stated that all his scientific merit must be nullified because of his “brutal inhumanity” of expressing anti-Jewish views. In 2005, the Executive Board of the International Diabetes Federation decided that “the institute does not be associated with Nicolae Paulescu” because of his anti-semitic views and that “there would be no Paulescu Lecture at World Diabetes Congresses should such a request be received”, all his other lectures, or related to him, were banned.
    He was also the first individual to use insulin to reduce blood sugar in a mammal, carrying out a series of treatments on diabetics animals and recording its efficacy when injected.
    In 1971, Paulescu was awarded international recognition as “the true inventor of insulin”, thanks to professor Ian Murray.

    the attachments to this post:

    • Gabriel says:

      Hi Cathy. If this were, and it isn’t, a post about “who first injected mammals / dogs / hamsters” with insulin, or who helped in the early development of insulin as a treatment for diabetes, then, yes, you would be correct. But it says pretty clearly in the first few sentences that this is about the first people to use insulin in people by actually injecting it into people. People, as defined by Google, are “the men, women, and children of a particular nation, community, or ethnic group.” Not dogs.

      Again, congratulations to Paulescu et al on getting a footnote on the Banting & Best Wiki page.

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