The Discovery of Insulin
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
W.H. Heick is a professor of History at Wilfrid Laurier University.
Michael Bliss has succeeded in writing a definitive history of the discovery of insulin, presenting this history within the framework of the history of medicine in Canada and the world. To achieve this goal he has read widely in the secondary sources, sought out all available primary sources, and interviewed 65 people.
Beginning with a review of the historical literature already in existence, Bliss goes on to discuss the early efforts to discover a way of curing diabetes and to reproduce what would become known as insulin. Bliss keeps track of research the world over but, quite naturally, focuses on the work in Canada by Banting, McLeod, Best, and Collip. For this successful achievement Banting and McLeod won the Nobel Prize in 1923 — the first by Canadians in any field.
Within the classical historical question of the interaction of character and circumstance, Bliss stresses character. Men, with all their strengths and weaknesses as persons, struggle to achieve a goal. Banting, with the seminal idea but little expertise in research and no equipment or funds, seeks out McLeod. McLeod provides research skills, a laboratory, and a research assistant in Best. Collip is soon brought in to provide further research capabilities. Personality clashes occur as the work goes on. They continue, once success has been achieved, over who should be given what credit. Bliss does well in developing the characters of the major figures involved and in analyzing the impact of character on events.
Bliss faced a major task in choosing the audience for this book — medical specialist or general public. He has aimed for both and, for the most part, succeeds. The professional experts will be able to appreciate his narration of the day-to-day experiments carried out in 1921-22. The general reader probably will take up Bliss’s invitation to skim over this material. His attempts to use proper medical terminology and also translate it into layman’s words result in some rough prose. All readers will appreciate the description of the impact of insulin on the emaciated people who were the first humans to receive the new medicine.
Throughout this story Bliss also brings out the degree to which history is the story of the accidental or unintentional. Life is a “muddling through” experience. Poor equipment, inadequate knowledge, incorrect conclusions, personal differences — all of these plague the men as they stumble towards success.