The Inspiring Journey of Insulin Discovery: From Banting’s Attic to a Billion Lives

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

Imagine a world without insulin. A world where diabetes was a death sentence, stealing the lives of children and adults alike. This was the reality for millions before 1921, when a team of unlikely heroes in Toronto, Canada, stumbled upon a medical miracle: insulin.

The discovery of insulin is a captivating story of scientific curiosity, perseverance, and the power of collaboration. It all unfolded in the early 1920s in Toronto, Canada, with Frederick Banting as the central protagonist.

But What is Insulin?

Imagine your body as a bustling city, buzzing with activity. Food is like fuel, fuelling all the buildings and vehicles – your muscles, your brain, everything. But there’s a snag: the fuel needs a key to unlock its energy. That key is insulin, a superhero molecule made by your pancreas.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Fuel Up: You eat, and sugar (energy) from your food enters your bloodstream, like trucks delivering packages.
  2. Unlocking the Doors: Insulin comes along, acting like a magic key. It unlocks the doors of your cells, allowing the sugar packages to enter and get used as energy.
  3. Happy City: With enough sugar delivered, your cells are happy and energised. You feel full, focused, and ready to tackle the day.

Insulin also helps store unused sugar for later, kind of like having a secret pantry in your city to keep things running smoothly even when trucks aren’t delivering.

But sometimes, things go awry:

  • Lost Key: In diabetes, the pancreas either doesn’t make enough insulin (like losing the key) or the cells don’t recognise the key (like broken locks).
  • Sugar Overload: Without the key, sugar gets stuck in the bloodstream, like trucks piling up outside closed buildings. This is bad news – it can damage your city (body) over time.

That’s where helping hands come in:

  • Medications: Doctors can give people with diabetes medicine that acts like a spare key, helping sugar get into the cells.
  • Healthy Habits: Eating right, exercising, and keeping stress in check can also help your body use sugar better, even without the perfect key.

The Journey of Insulin Discovery

Diabetes, a disease that cripples the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, was once a death sentence. But in the early 1920s, a spark of hope ignited in a Toronto laboratory, forever changing the course of medical history.

A Spark of Inspiration

Frederick Banting, a young surgeon, witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of diabetes. Patients wasted away, their bodies ravaged by the cruel disease. One chilling encounter in particular resonated deeply: the tragic death of a 14-year-old girl named Edith Williams. Determined to find a cure, Banting delved into medical literature, seeking a shred of hope amidst the grim realities of diabetes.

One night, in 1921, he came across an article by Joseph von Mering and Oskar Minkowski, German researchers who had discovered that removing the pancreas from dogs led to diabetes-like symptoms. This sparked an idea in Banting’s mind: could there be something in the pancreas that controlled blood sugar levels?

A Daring Experiment

Driven by this thought, Banting teamed up with Charles Best, a medical student. Together, they secured a small laboratory space and began their experiments. Their initial goal was to remove the pancreas from dogs and isolate the substance responsible for controlling blood sugar.

Their early attempts were met with failure after failure. The dogs died from complications, and they couldn’t identify the elusive substance. But they didn’t give up. Eventually, their breakthrough came when they tried a new approach.

A Turning Point

Banting and Best hypothesised that the substance controlling blood sugar might be destroyed by digestive enzymes in the pancreas. Therefore, they removed the pancreas from dogs and tied off the duct that carries digestive enzymes, hoping to preserve the mysterious substance. This time, they were successful.

After injecting an extract from the pancreas into another diabetic dog, they observed a dramatic drop in blood sugar levels. This was the first concrete evidence that they had indeed found something important. The lifeless eyes regained their sparkle, and the once sluggish animal sprang back to life. This was it – the elusive “insulin” had finally been revealed.

Refining the Discovery

With the support of John Macleod, a professor of physiology, and James Collip, a biochemist, Banting and Best further purified the extract and named it “insulin”, a name proposed by a Belgian doctor for the pancreas’s secret juice a few years before its isolation. They then conducted trials on humans, which proved successful in alleviating the symptoms of diabetes.

From Lab Bench to Patient’s Bedside

The first human trial took place at Toronto General Hospital. Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old boy at death’s door, became the recipient of the revolutionary treatment. Within hours of receiving the first injection, Leonard’s blood sugar levels rapidly descended, marking a turning point in his battle against diabetes.

News of this success spread like wildfire. From Toronto, the miracle of insulin swept across the globe, offering hope and a chance at life to millions. Banting and MacLeod, lauded as heroes, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1923 for their groundbreaking work.

The award caused a significant debate because Best, Collip, and others weren’t included. Banting and MacLeod, feeling bad about this, shared their prize with Collip and Best. Sadly, other scientists like Paulescu still weren’t officially recognized for their part in discovering insulin.

A Legacy of Continuous Evolution

The discovery of insulin marked only the beginning of a remarkable journey. Since then, researchers have relentlessly pursued advancements in insulin therapy. From animal-derived formulas to recombinant DNA-produced insulin, the availability and effectiveness of treatment have steadily improved. Today, people with diabetes have access to a range of insulin types and delivery methods, enabling them to regulate their blood sugar levels more effectively and lead active, fulfilling lives.

However, the fight against diabetes is far from over. Millions still struggle with the disease, and the search for a cure continues. Yet, the story of insulin is a testament to human curiosity, perseverance, and a touch of serendipity. It’s a tale of a young medical student, Frederick Banting, driven by a personal tragedy and his unwavering belief in a cure. It’s about the unwavering support of his lab partner, Charles Best, and the guidance of their professors, J.J.R. Macleod and James B. Collip.

Insulin’s discovery is more than just a scientific triumph; it’s a testament to the power of human compassion and a source of endless hope for a future free from the grip of diabetes. So, the next time you see someone using an insulin pump or injecting a dose, remember the remarkable journey that made it possible. Remember the heroes who dared to dream and the countless lives saved by their sweet revolution.


There are two scientists, Eugène Gley and Nicolae Paulescu, who contributed to finding insulin as a cure for diabetes but didn’t get enough credit for it. Scientists now agree they deserve more recognition. To learn more about these gentlemen, check out the references below.

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