The disease diabetes has been identified for thousands of years, but only in the last 100 has there been a truly life-saving treatment: Insulin.
Insulin was discovered in 1921 at the University of Toronto.
Its discovery was one of the most sensational developments in medicine, effectively treating a disease that relentlessly reduced millions to blindness, coma and death. In his book, The Discovery of Insulin, author Michael Bliss writes that the first attempts to use insulin on comatose diabetics created what seemed to be a miracle: Comatose patients awoke and returned to life.
Until insulin was identified, there were many different types of treatment, all mainly useless. The most effective was an extreme diet. Patients managed to live a few years longer after starting the diet, but ultimately died of starvation. Doctors who used the diet in the 1920s were later reminded of their patients when they saw pictures of inmates at Nazi death camps. Some people managed to live on the diet long enough to raise a child, for example. But even one morsel off the diet could kill them. Bliss gives the example of a messenger boy who managed to exist on the diet until one day he couldn’t resist picking and eating a handful of cherries. He was dead in a week.
It is generally agreed that insulin was first identified by Dr. Fred Banting, but many years of research before and after by many other scientists and doctors contributed to making insulin a reality.
Making it readily available was another problem. Insulin could not have been provided in quantities for the thousands, if not millions, of people who desperately needed it without the participation of drug companies such as Eli Lilly and Connaught Laboratories, to name just two.
During the time insulin was known but could not be manufactured in sufficient quantities, patients died, knowing a treatment existed but that it just could not be made fast enough.