In 1922 scientists Frederick Banting (November 14, 1891 – February 21, 1941) and Charles Best (February 27, 1899 – March 31, 1978) arrived at a hospital ward for diabetic children, most of them comatose and dying from diabetic keto-acidosis. This is known as one of medicine’s most incredible moments. Imagine a room full of parents sitting at the bedside waiting for the inevitable death of their child.
The scientists went from bed to bed and injected the children with the new purified extract – insulin. As they began to inject the last comatose child, the first child injected began to awaken. Then one by one, all the children awoke from their diabetic comas. A room of death and gloom became a place of joy and hope.
In the early 1920s Frederick Banting and Charles Best discovered insulin under the directorship of John Macleod (6 September 1876 – 16 March 1935) at the University of Toronto. With the help of James Collip insulin was purified, making it available for the successful treatment of diabetes. Banting and Macleod earned a Nobel Prize for their work in 1923.
“Capt., Frederick Grant Banting, 13th Fld. Amb., Can. A.M.C.
Near Haynecourt on September 28, 1918, when the medical officer of the 46th Canadian battalion was wounded, he immediately proceeded forward through intense shell fire to reach the battalion. Several of his men were wounded and he, neglecting his own safety, stopped to attend to them. While doing this he was wounded himself and was sent out notwithstanding his plea to be left at the front. His energy and pluck were of a very high order.”
– Supplement to The London Gazette, July 30, 1919, Page 9789
Prior to the discovery of insulin severe diabetics were treated primarily by means of a strict diet which inevitably led to starvation if not out and out death from the disease.
Children in particular suffered terribly from these severely restricted diets. For example, Leonard Thompson weighed only 65 pounds at the age of 14 when he was admitted to the Toronto General Hospital in December 1921, and was receiving only 450 calories per day. Jim Havens weighed less than 74 pounds at the age of 22, and when Elizabeth Hughes arrived in Toronto she weighed only 45 pounds and could barely walk on her own. After five weeks of treatment her weight had increased by ten pounds, and she was revelling in a 2500 calorie diet which included a pint of cream daily, having endured calorie intakes as low as 300 calories per day during the worst periods of her illness. In private correspondence, accounts in the popular press, and even in scientific journals the miraculous return to life and health of these patients once they received insulin was likened to a miracle.
Patient: Teddy Ryder
Doctor: Dr. Morton Ryder
One of Banting’s star patients, referred to as the ‘living miracle’ in press accounts, who came to Toronto as a 5 year old boy, weighing only 27 pounds, receiving his first injection on 10 July
The following year he wrote to Banting several times from his home in Connecticut, informing him that “I am a fat boy now and I feel fine”; Banting kept in touch with him through the 1920s and 1930s
Teddy Ryder lived for over 70 years on insulin, dying at the age of 76
Patient: Elizabeth Hughes
Doctor: Dr. Frederick M. Allen
The daughter of the U.S. Secretary of State Elizabeth was Banting’s star patient and the subject of considerable press coverage, receiving her first injection on 17 Aug. and returning home to Washington, DC on 30 Nov. She went on to Barnard College, married lawyer William T. Gossett and lived a long and productive life; none of her later friends or associates even knew that she suffered from diabetes; she died in 1981 at the age of 73
Patient: James Havens
Doctor: Dr. John R. Williams
Havens’s father, who was Vice-President of Eastman Kodak, and his doctor were successful in obtaining permission to administer insulin to the dying young man in Rochester, NY on 22 May 1922, making Havens the first diabetic to receive insulin in the United States
Banting himself went to Rochester 26 May when Havens initially did not respond well to treatment
For a time during the summer of 1922 Havens was the only person outside of a handful of patients in Toronto being treated with insulin
Havens went on to become a well known artist and printmaker.
Patient: Elsie Needham
Doctor: Gladys Boyd
The first child to recover from a coma as a result of insulin treatment, at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto in Oct. 1922 – by Jan. 1923 she was well enough to resume a normal life and return to school in Galt, Ontario.
Lead image: Mothers holding their sick children waiting to consult a physician. Lithograph by K. Kollwitz, 1920
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