The History of a Wonderful Thing We Call Insulin

Since the dawn of time, we have searched for ways to make life easier for us. The modern age has given us some amazing technological advances—what we would do without the internet, our iPhones or high-speed travel?

For many people, surviving life without these things sounds rough. However, if you have diabetes, no doubt you’re also a big fan of one particular 20th-century discovery: insulin.

Before insulin was discovered in 1921, people with diabetes didn’t live for long; there wasn’t much doctors could do for them. The most effective treatment was to put patients with diabetes on very strict diets with minimal carbohydrate intake. This could buy patients a few extra years but couldn’t save them. Harsh diets (some prescribed as little as 450 calories a day!) sometimes even caused patients to die of starvation.

So how did this wonderful breakthrough blossom? Let’s travel back a little more than 100 years ago.…

In 1889, two German researchers, Oskar Minkowski and Joseph von Mering, found that when the pancreas gland was removed from dogs, the animals developed symptoms of diabetes and died soon afterward. This led to the idea that the pancreas was the site where “pancreatic substances” (insulin) were produced.

Later experimenters narrowed this search to the islets of Langerhans (a fancy name for clusters of specialized cells in the pancreas). In 1910, Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Shafer suggested only one chemical was missing from the pancreas in people with diabetes. He decided to call this chemical insulin, which comes for the Latin word insula, meaning “island.”

So what happened next? Something truly miraculous. In 1921, a young surgeon named Frederick Banting and his assistant Charles Best figured out how to remove insulin from a dog’s pancreas. Skeptical colleagues said the stuff looked like “thick brown muck,” but little did they know this would lead to life and hope for millions of people with diabetes.

With this murky concoction, Banting and Best kept another dog with severe diabetes alive for 70 days—the dog died only when there was no more extract. With this success, the researchers, along with the help of colleagues J.B. Collip and John Macleod, went a step further. A more refined and pure form of insulin was developed, this time from the pancreases of cattle.

In January 1922, Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old boy dying from diabetes in a Toronto hospital, became the first person to receive an injection of insulin. Within 24 hours, Leonard’s dangerously high blood glucose levels dropped to near-normal levels.

The news about insulin spread around the world like wildfire. In 1923, Banting and Macleod received the Nobel Prize in Medicine, which they shared with Best and Collip. Thank you, diabetes researchers!

Soon after, the medical firm Eli Lilly started large-scale production of insulin. It wasn’t long before there was enough insulin to supply the entire North American continent. In the decades to follow, manufacturers developed a variety of slower-acting insulins, the first introduced by Novo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals, Inc., in 1936.

Insulin from cattle and pigs was used for many years to treat diabetes and saved millions of lives, but it wasn’t perfect, as it caused allergic reactions in many patients. The first genetically engineered, synthetic “human” insulin was produced in 1978 using E. coli bacteria to produce the insulin. Eli Lilly went on in 1982 to sell the first commercially available biosynthetic human insulin under the brand name Humulin.

Insulin now comes in many forms, from regular human insulin identical to what the body produces on its own, to ultra-rapid and ultra-long acting insulins. Thanks to decades of research, people with diabetes can choose from a variety of formulas and ways to take their insulin based on their personal needs and lifestyles. From Humalog to Novolog and insulin pens to pumps, insulin has come a long way. It may not be a cure for diabetes, but it’s literally a life saver.

So, what’s next for insulin? Scientists aren’t sure (though they’re working hard on it!), but one thing is certain: insulin is a medical marvel in the world of diabetes.

For more interesting information about insulin, we suggest reading The Discovery of Insulin by Michael Bliss.

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52 Responses to The History of a Wonderful Thing We Call Insulin

  1. MB says:

    “In 1910, Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Shafer suggested only one chemical was missing from the pancreas in people with diabetes.”

    Except insulin is not the only thing diabetics are missing! Diabetics are also lacking amylin! Even a lot of Type 1s don’t know this!

    • debb052 says:

      I will be researching amylin next. I believe it is the drug that is in Victoza. Is that true?

      • Lori Reffett says:

        debb052, no the drug that provides amylin is called Symlin. Victoza and the like are GLP1 agonists. This injectible allows the GLP1 hormone to act longer which encourages the pancreas to secrete insulin in the presence of food.

  2. Anthony Lucca says:

    When will the price of insulin come down to an affordable amount? If a person can’t afford medical insurance they have to lay out 250.00 for five pens. This stuff costs way to much!

    • Norah Carmichael says:

      Interestingly Banting, Macleod, and the rest of the team patented their insulin extract but gave away all their rights to the University of Toronto, which would later use the income from insulin to fund new research. Discovering insulin could have made Banting very rich, but he decided to give the patent away for free. He wanted insulin to be available to everyone, not held out of reach at exorbitant prices. Unfortunately his wishes that the cost be controlled and low has now changed. Luckily in Canada there are ways we can get cheap, almost free insulin paid for by our province.

    • Ellen says:

      Wal mart sells old fashioned bottled Insulin, which works very well, thank you, for 25 dollars,a bottle, needles less than 20 for 100. It has kept me alive.

  3. Diabetic Survival Kit says:

    Sometimes the little things adding up provide incredible benefits. After insulin use became widespread, complications from diabetes became a major factor determining the quantity and quality of life. As insulins improved, and ways to measure control were developed life span kept increasing. Today, a person with type I diabetes has an excellent chance to have a normal life span. This is a great piece of history.

  4. Margaret Turner says:

    I read with interest your article “The History of a Wonderful Thing We Call Insulin”. If I recall correctly, my twin brother was the 5th person to be given Humulin Insulin during a research project at Emory University. This would have probably been in the late ’60’s. Would this be correct?

    Thank you,

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  6. Nicole McEwen says:

    Wow, great post! I had no idea how insulin treatment was discovered. Type 2 diabetes can be prevented in a lot of cases, if you catch it early. Thankfully, the variety of insulin therapies available makes it easier to treat diabetes if you do develop the disease.

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  8. Mihai says:

    great discovery.

    Not great research on your article, though.

    Banting and Best stood on the shoulders of Nicolae Paulescu, who synthesized aqueous pancreatic extract in 1916 (before being drafted to serve in WWI).Today nobody remembers him, because he wrote a couple of (very stupid) anti-semite articles. Good-bye Nobel-Prize, good-bye Street-bearing-his-name.

    He revolutionized medicine, though, and together with Banting and Best helped save more than 16 million lives.

    • William Banks says:

      Mahai Thank you for the information about Dr. Nicolae Paulescu. I was just leaving an article about having type one going on sixty two (62) years. August 1953 to August 2015. Bill

    • Edster says:

      Not everyone bows to your talmudic overlords.

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  10. Nancy Williams says:

    Insulin is a life saver. I think the problem is we come to depend on these substances too much instead of looking for ways to completely reverse the condition.

    Type 2 diabetes is proven to be reversible, I’m proof of that. I had t2 diabetes for over 15 years and am currently in remission simply from changing my diet!

    My good friend told me about a segment on Oprah which featured a doctor who developed a program to reverse t2 diabetes (it might work for type 1 as well but I’m not too sure..) she told me about his website

    Within the first week my blood glucose levels dropped 20-30 points.

    In the last four weeks it dropped even more and I have maintained within 80-110 on my morning checks.

    Have used all the advice in this program and amazingly I’ve eliminated the nightly dosage of Metformin. My goal is to eliminate all medications.

    I’m so disappointed my doctor never told me about this vital information. Instead he would have me monitoring my blood sugar and taking insulin shots for the rest of my life!

    Please help spread the word.

    -Nancy Williams

    • MH says:

      I wish type 1 and type 2 diabetes had different names: they cannot be treated the same, Nancy. People lump them together, not knowing that type 1s must take insulin or they will die, and no amount of metformin will make us not have to take insulin. Type 2s’ pancreases still make insulin; type 1s make none or not enough insulin. Less than 10% of people with diabetes have type 1, and consequently most information addresses those with type 2.

      • Marie says:

        THANK YOU. I’m so tired of type 2s saying that type 1s just “néed to adjust their diet” – Type 1 diabetes mellitus is not a diseas of affluence or lifestyle. It is a genetic condition that can’t be controlled by diet, fatal without insult treatment.

        • Matt says:

          Well said. I’m a 40 year type 1 and my daughter was diagnosed type 1 nearly two years ago. I phoned my local radio station when my daughter heard that ” Diabetes in children was often caused by bad diet.” This upset me more as I didn’t want my daughter to hear that there was any blame attached to her and her type 1. I phoned the radio station however they had to move on before I had a chance to advise on air the differences. It is sad that two very different conditions are named so similarly that the those that don’t have it don’t get how different the two conditions are.

    • Karen says:

      Nacy, type 2s generally make plenty of insulin but their bodies have trouble using it. They are often called insulin-resistant. Type 2 can be reversed (better to call it remission) for many. It is also a completely different disease.
      It is very important to understand that with type 1 our body’s immune system have mis-fired by mistaking the insulin making cells in our pancreas as an enemy and destroyed part of our pancreas. That cannot be reversed, no more then you cannot “reverse” a limb that has been amputated. All of us (type 1 & 2) are very fortunate to live in a time when we have so many great treatment options.

      • Chris says:

        Google, ‘the diabetes solution’ This will lead you to a path of real answers to all questions. Dr. B, a practicing endocrinologist and t1 diabetic himself. read his book, watch his lectures on youtube, connect with patient community on facebook. lots of avenues to learn and survive.

  11. Jim Jennings says:

    Outstanding article. Until now, I was most aware of the revolution in treating infectious diseases, in the early 1900’s. This adds immeasurably to my understanding. We should all be thankful to be living in this century. Meanwhile, I’ve never heard any mention of the horrors of diabetes, prior to 1921. I do know that the condition was known in ancient Greece. Until 1921, young patients’ tragic struggles with untreated Type 1 Diabetes (+ Terrible Electrolyte Imbalance) must have been fatal in less than 1 year.

  12. It needs more details about the insulin

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  15. Karen says:

    I recommend the book “Breakthrough” if you want to learn more about the discovery of insulin. You can buy it used on Amazon.

  16. Adi says:

    The true inventator of insulin was Nicolae Paulescu , a Romanian scientist who discovered it in 1916….before Banting and the other Canadian, who got the Nobel Prize for it. All the world know that was the Romanian Paulescu and the Canadians stole it , and took the prize. What a shame for Canadian History ! I hate when others get credit for someone’s work.

    • Karl Leopold says:

      Paulescu discovered insulin before Banting and Best, as did Zeuzler in Berlin. But while Zeuzler discontinued work on his discovery because he mistook hypoglycemic seizures in the patients he tested it on for anaphylactic shock in reaction to the foreign protein, Paulescu’s only excuse for not developing his work was that he “got distracted by World War I.” Also, since Banting and Best knew nothing of Paulescu’s work, they cannot be said to have stolen his discovery.

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  18. Barbara Bell Payne says:

    My father, William John Bell 11, 1921 to 2016, passed away March 25, 2016 in Georgia after using insulin 87 YEARS. He has been given awards by Eli Lilly and was an inspiration to everyone battling this disease. By the way, diabetes was NOT the cause of death!

    • Sheila Hatch says:

      I am so inspired and hopeful hearing of your father. My son was diagnosed as a type 1 three years ago at age 19 and I am very proud and impressed at how well he takes care of his health and diligently takes his insulin shots.
      Knowing that your father lived a long life with type 1 makes this mother feel both relieved and encouraged that my son will live a healthy life as well.
      Thank you for sharing that with me.

      • Karl Leopold says:

        Studies of the minority of patients who have survived 50 years or more with type 1 diabetes show that most of them have a genetic oddity which preserves their DNA from the effects of hyperglycemia. Those who survive this long with the disease but without that oddity suffer with a myriad of diabetic complications and often wish they had not lived that long. So it all comes down to whether you are genetically lucky or not.

        • Sheila Hatch says:

          Are they looking for that genetic oddity in patients who are younger or older and recently diagnosed?
          Is there a link between care or blood glucose control with this genetic finding?
          Sometimes relationships between cause and effect can be misleading. I am curious about other similarities the Type 1 patients in the study had.
          If you can, please point me to where you found this info.

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  21. Fatima says:

    Nicolae paulescu discovered insulin first, Unfortunately World War 1 an military patrolclosed his laboratory

  22. Write about Nicolae Paunescu, please. He is the real discoverer of this medicine.
    Why are you trying to hide his big contribute?Because he is Romanian and you hate gipsyes? Romanian are not gipsyes, about 3% of Romanian’s population is gipsy and we hate them, because they made a lot of bad in our country and in your countryes.
    Write here about Nicolae Paunescu:
    And write here about my country, Romania:

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  29. Chris Byers says:

    I once vacationed at the Islets of Langerhans.

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