Fredonia Shakespeare Club hears paper on the discovery of insulin

Mary Jane Walker

The second meeting of the 2019-2020 Fredonia Shakespeare Club year was held on Oct. 17 at the home of Joan Larson. President Lucille Richardson welcomed 13 members.

Priscilla Bernatz read the minutes from the Oct. 10 meeting. The minutes were approved as written.

After a short business meeting, Mary Jane Walker read her paper “The Discovery of Insulin” which is summarized as follows:

Diabetes is a disease that has been with us for centuries. It occurs when your blood sugar is too high. Blood sugar is your main source of energy and comes from the foods you eat. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas and helps sugar from food get into our cells to be used for energy. Sometimes your body does not make enough or any insulin. The sugar then stays in our blood and doesn’t reach your cells. Over time this leads to health problems.

Four thousand year old Egyptian hieroglyphics describe the illness of diabetes. The Greek physician Apollonius named the disorder diabetes which means “to go through.” Historic documents show that Greek, Indian, Arab, Egyptian and Chinese doctors were aware of the condition, but none knew the cause. In earlier times a diagnoses of diabetes was a death sentence.

The person who was destined to discover a treatment for diabetes — insulin — had an amazing journey in that discovery. His name is Frederick Grant Banting. Banting was the youngest of five children born to William Thompson Banting and Margaret Grant in Alliston, Ontario, Canada on Nov. 14, 1891. He grew up on his family’s farm. There is always an event in our lives that contributes to our choices in life. For Banting it was the death of a teenage friend, classmate. He saw his friend go from energetic to sleeping all the time. He drank ravenously and ate continuously but continued to lose weight. From the death of his friend from diabetes, Banting knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He wanted to care for people.

Banting wanted to be a doctor in the 20th century where doctors learned to care for patients. In his sophomore year in 1912 he decided to enroll at the University of Toronto School of Medicine. He would focus on the research part of medicine. He knew the importance of medical research in finding cures for typhoid fever, TB and diabetes. He was determined and focused on his medical studies. Banting purchased his own microscope. He prepared his own tissue samples and pricked his own finger to study his blood under the microscope.

In his class on biochemistry, the professor A.B. McCullun lectured on the oblong shaped gland in the digestive system known as the pancreas. Within the pancreas there are a group of cells called “the Islands of Langerhans” named after the man who discovered them Paul Langerhan. Paul Langerhan was a German medical student in 1869 when he dissected a pancreas and saw tiny bunches of spots that looked like islands. They were ductless. What were the cells for? The Islands of Langerhan produced hormone X. It was absorbed into the body in a way they did not understand, but it prevented diabetes. No one at the time knew how to obtain this substance.

While in medical school, World War I began. There was a dire need for doctors overseas. They were graduating doctors one year early to fill that need. Banting volunteered and was sent to Buxtom, England.

After the war Banting needed a laboratory facility for further experiments and John Macleod, Professor of Physiology at the University of Toronto, let him use his lab to conduct research along with 10 dogs. Macleod appointed Charles Best, a 22 year old biomedical science student as Banting’s assistant. Best had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physiology and biochemistry and was starting grad school. Best had grown up in rural Maine and had learned lab techniques such as blood analysis and blood-sugar measurements. He had an aunt who died from diabetes. By a flip of the coin, Charles Best was chosen over Clark Noble to assist Banting.

Macleod demonstrated the operation on the first dog. The dog was anesthetized and the pancreas removed. Without the pancreas, the dog became diabetic.

During the summer of 1921, Banting and Best made remarkable progress. Banting sold his Ford car to buy more dogs. The name for the substance discovered would be called “isletin” after the Islands of Langerhans where the product had come from. Macleod named it insulin.

By the fall of 1921 they had isolated material from the pancreas extract which dramatically prolonged the lives of dogs made diabetic by removal of the pancreas. In the winter of 1922, Banting and Best treated their first human patient. It was a young boy, whose life was saved by the treatment.

Macleod assigned his entire lab to the insulin project. He added James Collip as a lab assistant who had a background in biochemistry to help purify the insulin. He also enlisted Eli Lilly Company to aid in the large scale commercial preparation of insulin. By 1923, insulin was available in quantities adequate for relatively widespread treatment of diabetes.

In 1923 Frederick Banting and John Macload were the first Canadians to receive the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for their discovery of insulin. In recognition for the part they played in the discovery by their collaborators, they shared their monetary gift with Charles Best and James Collip, their lab assistants.

Nicki Scheonl assisted at the tea table.

The next meeting of the Club will be held at the Barker Library when President Richardson will read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech.


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