Bliss, Michael. The Discovery of Insulin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

 

Bliss, Michael. The Discovery of Insulin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Here is a beautiful story of the discovery of insulin. As the tale emerges in these pages, it
becomes clear that there was no discovery. It is only our insistence on "discovery" that leads to
myths of discovery. In this sense, science is the success story which is spun after the fact.

Here is the story of the 1923 Nobel prize: Banting and Macleod win for insulin. But, by then the
two men hated each other and had completely different accounts of the discovery of insulin. As
evidence of their disagreement, the first thing they did with the money was split it with others
who had worked with them: Banting gave half of his prize to Best, his erstwhile "assistant" while
Macloed gave half of his to the biochemist Collip, who, he insisted, had helped enormously in
the development of insulin. They could not even agree on who helped them.

It is fair to say that these men stumbled onto insulin. Their initial hypothesis was wrong, their
work overlooked their own data, and they drew the wrong conclusions from what they did
observe. This is hardly the way that science is supposed to work, but the beauty of Bliss' book is
that he has reconstructed the pathway to insulin on an almost day-by-day basis and he can follow
the events in a way that others could not. He was lucky in having access to data only recently
made available to historians. The result is a clear account of the stumblings, the errors, the
failures of insight and the misperceptions, which ultimately brought insulin into being.

After the discovery, there were a host of political and academic games played. There was the
matter of seeing that the right men were credited with the discovery. Not only were there people
in Toronto working on this, there were others around the world who also wanted some share of
the prize. Then there were economic matters. It is not an exaggeration to say that Lily owes its
position to the discovery of insulin. Then there was the matter of professional ethics (physicians
are not supposed to patent their medical discoveries). In the midst of this there were the patients,
the dying patients who could be brought back from the grave by the discovery. After the
discovery was made - but before the distribution of insulin could be accomplished - there was a
lot of pressure on the pharmaceutical companies involved.

I cannot complete this reference without noting the special use to which patients and the families
of patients were put by those who wanted Canada to get the credit and the Nobel prize. One of
the important patients cured by the discovery of insulin was a daughter of Charles Evans Hughes,
a figure who did, of course, help Banting and Macleod obtain credit for the discovery.

The final words of the book are insightful. "Their struggle for credit was fired by each man's
desire to have his place in history, to have the only kind of immortality open to us. This is surely
not an ignoble aspiration. But perhaps the group at Toronto misjudged both their situation and
posterity's viewpoint. They did not realize that those who understood history would eventually
come to honor all of them. Above all, they would honor their achievement." (p. 248)