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.