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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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Question

What medical discovery at the University of Toronto was greeted by a standing ovation and the Nobel Prize in 1923?

Answer Insulin, developed by Frederick Banting, Charles Best, James Collip and J.J. Macleod, brought a group of Washington, D.C. physicians to their feet, and brought Banting and Macleod the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

On 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.

The first 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.

J. J. Macleod
J. J. Macleod

In the 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.

Banting 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.

James Collip
James Collip

They continued 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.

On May 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.

Frederick Bantin
Frederick Banting

For the 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.

Macleod 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.

A myth 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…"

Banting and Best lab
Banting and Best laboratory

Banting 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.

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