March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of
Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout
2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the
celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The
University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University
Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.
successful injection of insulin was administered to an emaciated 14
year-old charity patient, Leonard Thompson, at the Toronto General Hospital
on January 23, 1922. The idea of using a hormone produced by the pancreas
to control diabetes had been known for more than thirty years. Many
researchers throughout the world had tried to extract such a substance,
known as "insulin" even before its actual "discovery."
Some had come very close.
fall of 1920, Frederick Banting, a young doctor in London, Ontario,
thought of a possible technique for extracting the substance from the
pancreas of dogs. He went to see J.J. Macleod, the head of physiology
at the University of Toronto, from which Banting had graduated in the
class of 1917, to see if he could use Toronto facilities to work on
the idea. Macleod was quite willing to let Banting come, even though
Banting had no postgraduate training or research experience.
The research assistants
apparently flipped a coin to see who would start working with Banting.
Charles Best won the toss.
came to Toronto in the summer of 1921 and was given facilities on the
top floor of the medical school and the use of Macleod's two summer
research assistants. The research assistants apparently flipped a coin
to see who would start working with Banting. Charles Best won the toss.
their work in the fall with some involvement from Macleod and with help
from a professor from the University of Alberta, James Collip. Collip
was on leave for the year to work with Macleod. Collip's task was "to
purify the pancreatic extract so that it might be quite safe for use
in therapeutic trials." It "was only that which any well-trained
biochemist could be expected to contribute," he later modestly
stated. But his work was crucial to the success of the endeavour. It
was Collip who, probably on the evening of January 19, 1922, purified
the extract that was to be used. "I experienced then and there
all alone on the top floor of the old Pathology Building," he later
recalled, "perhaps the greatest thrill it has ever been given me
to realize." The results of the second injection on January 23
in young Leonard Thompson were "spectacular."
Banting was incensed
that he was to share the prize with Macleod and not with Best, and
had to be dissuaded from turning it down.
3, 1922, Macleod delivered a paper on the work to an important association
of physicians in Washington, D.C. Banting did not attend. It was greeted
with a standing ovation. The paper had the names of the contributors
in alphabetical order, starting with Banting, Best, and Collip, and
ending with Macleod and finally, Clark Noble, who had lost the coin
toss but had been able to work on some later aspects of the discovery.
In October 1923, it was announced that Banting and Macleod had been
awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Banting was incensed that he was
to share the prize with Macleod and not with Best, and had to be dissuaded
from turning it down. He was the first Canadian to win a Nobel prize.
He split his share with Best, as did Macleod with Collip.
next eighteen years, Banting tackled large problems, such as finding
the cure for cancer, without success. If he could do it once, he and
others thoughts, he could do it again. Money to support Banting poured
into the University. Some of the other researchers in the new Banting
Institute, of course, made significant contributions to medical research.
and Banting apparently did not speak to each other; Macleod decided
to take a position at the University of Aberdeen in 1927. Collip continued
to do excellent work in endocrinology at Alberta and then McGill. Charles
Best completed his medical degree and a doctorate, and returned to teach
and conduct research at Toronto. One of his early successes was in purifying
the anticoagulant heparin.
A myth developed over
the years that scientific medical research came to Toronto because
of the discovery of insulin.
developed over the years that scientific medical research came to Toronto
because of the discovery of insulin. In fact, the myth is incorrect:
the discovery was made because of the quality of the staff and facilities.
Prior to 1922, the medical school and the Toronto General Hospital had
developed some of the finest research facilities in the world. A 1910
Carnegie Corporation report had concluded that Toronto's laboratory
facilities were "among the best on the continent." Excellent researchers
such as Macleod were attracted to Toronto, partly by the good facilities
for research. But the notion that an inexperienced researcher with an
idea, aided by a young research assistant and using what was thought
to be inadequate facilities, could come up with a major discovery appealed
to the public…"
and Best laboratory
would die in a plane crash in 1941, Friedland continues. Best was appointed
to the chair of medical research in his place. Banting had reportedly
said shortly before his death, "If I don't come back and they give my
Chair to that son-of-a-bitch Best, I'll never rest in my grave." The
two researchers are commemorated today by the adjoining Banting and
Best Institutes on College Street. The full story of the discovery of
insulin has been admirably told by U of T history professor Michael
Bliss in several publications, from which much of the material used
in this excerpt has been drawn.