Looking back, it must have seemed like a miracle. Banting was just 29 in that summer of 1921, a surgeon not long out of medical school.
Best was a boy of 22, only a recent graduate in arts. Their research laboratory, grudgingly loaned for three months by the University of Toronto, was dark and humid. They ate poorly. They were not paid.
Calculate the odds: two
inexperienced young men, badly equipped, with 90 days to change the face of medical history.
The world now knows well what Sir Frederick G. Banting and Dr. Charles Herbert Best discovered that summer—a crude extract of precious insulin, a chemical derived from the pancreas and capable of controlling diabetes mellitus, a killer disease as old as China. Dr. Best died last month in Toronto at 79 and his death, following abdominal surgery, was an occasion for remembering his contribution to what remains one of modern medicine’s outstanding achievements.
The existence of insulin had been suspected for more than a decade and the attempt to extract and isolate it occupied researchers around the world. But Banting and Best, experimenting with diseased pancreases removed from diabetic dogs, were the first. They made one mongrel famous—Marjorie; a shot of unpurified insulin roused her from a coma and she lived for years. Six months later, on January 11, 1922—after first verifying its safety with large doses on themselves—the first human diabetic was given insulin: 14-yearold Leonard Thompson at Toronto General Hospital. With insulin, Thompson went on to live another 12 years before dying of causes unrelated to diabetes.
* The world at large proclaimed them, although only Banting and Dr. J. J. R. Macleod, the physiologist who had reluctantly made the lab space available and then left for a summer holiday, were cited for the 1923 Nobel Prize in medicine. Banting, who died in an air crash in Newfoundland in 1941, graciously shared his award with Best.
If Best was slighted at the lack of recognition accorded him, and vexed by Macleod’s tendency to want all the credit for his own, he nursed his bitterness privately. He was that kind of man. By mutual agreement, Banting and Best never earned a fee
for their discovery. Instead, they sold the patent papers to the university for one dollar, stipulating that no royalties ever be charged on the manufacture of insulin.
The son of a family doctor from King County, Nova Scotia, Best was actually born in West Pembroke, Maine, in a house overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay. He was schooled there and later received his BA, MA and MD degrees from the University of Toronto. In the years following their discovery, Best supervised insulin production at the Connaught Medical Research Laboratories. Later, he succeeded Macleod as head of physiology and later still, Banting, as head of the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research. There, Best helped develop heparin, a blood thinner used in open-heart surgery, and played a significant part in other medical areas.
Nothing eclipsed, of course, the miracle of insulin. Before it was found, less than 20% of the world’s diabetics lived 10 years with the disease. Children seldom lasted a year. Now, millions live near-normally— bearing healthy children and sharing life expectancies approaching those of nondiabetics. “It was just like fighting a war,” Best said of his fateful summer. “You just had to win.”
Best, with Banting, won decisively. And in doing so, made the rest of us winners too. MICHAEL POSNER
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