Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 729: INSULIN

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 729.

Today, we watch as many people wrestle diabetes to the earth. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Diabetes has been around a long time. The Greeks diagnosed it by tasting urine to see if it was sweet. By 1682, doctors had traced it to the pancreas gland. During the 1890s they started looking to the pancreas for a treatment of diabetes.

By WW-I an American named Scott and a Rumanian, Paulesco, tried to create a medicinal pancreas extract. But the pancreas secretes digestive juices that destroyed what they were after.

Enter now a young Canadian doctor, Fred Banting. His work was going badly. He'd just broken up with his fiancee. And he was unready for a lecture he had to give on the pancreas. One night in 1920 Banting tossed and turned. At 2:00 AM it hit him.

He could tie off the pancreatic ducts and extract secretions from certain island nodes of tissue inside the gland. Insulin takes its name from the Latin for island, those island secretors.

Banting went to the University of Toronto Medical School and asked Professor MacLeod for support that summer. MacLeod gave him eight weeks. He got him started. He lent him a student named Charles Best. Then he went to Scotland on vacation.

Banting and Best began experimenting on the pancreas in dogs. They were both inexperienced. They learned the ropes. They made mistakes. They misinterpreted the earlier literature. But Banting drove himself, and he drove Best.

They finally isolated insulin. When MacLeod came back and saw they were succeeding, he sent them a seasoned biochemist named James Collip. Collip's expertise was instrumental in the latter stages of the success. By 1922 insulin began saving lives.

But by 1922 relations between Banting and MacLeod had gone from tenuous to terrible. Banting was passionate about the work, MacLeod regarded it as one more success from his laboratory. He was insensitive about the matter of credit.

The final rent came in 1923 when the Nobel Prize in medicine went to Banting and MacLeod -- jointly. Banting was furious. He went to the press and announced that Best, not MacLeod, deserved to share the prize. He would share his half of the money with Best. MacLeod responded by sharing his half with Collip.

Of course the Rumanian Paulesco felt cheated. And, in retrospect, it seems that Banting had underrated Scott's earlier work. A priority war began. It rages to this very day.

And what a sad fight! The glorious fact is that so many people added brick on brick. Banting's passion, Collip's skill -- each sped the discovery that has saved tens of million of lives. Once we forget priority we can see these people accurately. They are heroes flawed, but they are heroes nonetheless.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Bliss, M., The Discovery of Insulin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Hazlewood, R.L., The Endocrine Pancreas. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989, Chapter 1.

Stevenson, L.G., Banting, Frederick Grant. Dictionary of Scientific Biography Vol. ??, (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980. pp. 440-443

Stevenson, L.G., MacLeod, John James Rickard. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol. ??, (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980. pp. 614-625.

Best, C.H., How We Discovered Insulin. A Reader's Digest Reprint. (from the March, 1964 issue.)

Sawyer, W.A., Frederick Banting's Misinterpretations of the Work of Ernest L. Scott as found in Secondary Sources. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Vol. 29, No. 4, 1986, pp. 614-618.

Richards, D.W., The Effect of Pancreas Extract on Depancreatized Dogs: Ernest L. Scott's Thesis of 1911. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Vol. 10, 1966, pp. 84-95.

I am grateful to Roger Eichhorn, Dean of Engineering at UH, for suggesting the topic. Robert L. Hazlewood, UH Biology Department, provided important counsel for this episode.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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