A Reader’s Guide Through Banting’s Science Journal Article
The first four paragraphs review what is known about diabetes from other experiments. The next three paragraphs then review two other papers about their previous work with dogs. In the next paragraph, the term “insulin” is introduced for the first time as the extract which was given clinically to diabetic patients for the first time.
After this, the article details four different experiments performed on humans, rabbits, and dogs. Then, they offer their conclusion – that the extract they have made works as a remedy for diabetes which means they were certain they had found something of monumental significance! They concluded with the cautionary statement that they were having difficulty producing it on a large scale.
Reading the article to the leading doctors in the country created a stampede as parents across North America rushed to get their children with diabetes to Toronto for treatment.
Is Insulin the Correct Name?
The story of how insulin came to be named is emblematic of the difficulties Frederick Banting had in discovering it.
In 1920, Frederick Banting asked John Macleod of the University of Toronto and one of the world’s leading authorities on diabetes, for the chance to test his hypothesis, that the substance now so well known as insulin, could be isolated from the pancreases of dogs. Macleod, a conventional academic, was skeptical not only of Banting’s hypothesis, but also of Banting, since he had never performed any original research before anywhere. Disconsolate but stubborn, Banting kept asking until a reluctant Macleod finally agreed to allow him use of the university’s old and vacant laboratory space while he went to Europe for the summer of 1921.
Overcoming problem after problem, Banting and a graduate student helper, Charles Best, isolated insulin from first the pancreases of dogs, and then ultimately in the biggest breakthrough, from cattle. Impassioned with their success, they named the substance isletin, after the Islets of Langerhans, specific cells that lie like islands in the pancreas, from which they had isolated their new and precious substance so desperately needed by diabetics.
When Macleod returned from Europe and saw Banting’s success he joined the research, adding the full resources of the university. Soon Banting was overshadowed. Shunted aside, he became depressed and quit the research altogether, lying alone in his rented room, getting drunk each night and keeping the other boarders awake singing, “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary.”
When the research hit a snag Best persuaded Banting to return and insulin was eventually produced in a purified form. Macleod, perhaps knowing that the substance had already been referred to as insuline in 1914 by another hypothesizing scientist (who was unable to isolate it), chose to follow the conventional academic tradition of naming things in Latin. He renamed it insulin after the Latin insula, meaning island. He claimed isletin would be an awkward sounding word. Since Banting had no standing at the university or in the academic world, he had no choice but to go along. So the first modern miracle drug, which turned childhood diabetes from 100% fatal to 100% survivable, became known as insulin. And the unconventional researcher, Frederick Banting, had his proudly chosen name, isletin, shunted aside and lost to history.