Insulin: 7 Things You Didn’t Know

1. It wasn’t called insulin

During their early dog experiments on pancreatic extracts in August 1921, Frederick Banting and Charles Best named the yet unknown substance “isletin”. The name was a reference to the Islets of Langerhans – cells in the pancreas that were suspected to produce a substance that regulated blood sugar levels. Later on, J.J.R. Macleod, the Director of the Physiological Laboratory at the University of Toronto who provided research lab facilities and oversaw Banting and Best’s experiments, suggested the name ‘insulin’. It was based on the Latin term for ‘island’ which Macleod believed would be more accepted internationally.

2. The first human to receive insulin took it by mouth

Before formal human trials were even started, Banting and Best decided to try their experimental extract on Banting’s friend and former classmate, Joe Gilchrist. Gilchrist was initially diagnosed with diabetes in 1917 and a recent influenza infection had aggravated his condition. By late December of 1921, his condition was deteriorating and Banting tried to help his friend with the still experimental substance. Gilchrist took the extract by mouth on December 20. Unfortunately it did not help him. At the time, Banting and Best did not know that insulin cannot be administered orally.

3. Insulin looked awful

The first extracts were not the crystal clear fluid that we see today. It was a brown, murky substance that was laden with impurities. Infections at injection sites were more common and potency of the drug was unpredictable. Sometimes varying amounts of the drug were administered to gain the same therapeutic effect.

4. Insulin cost 5 cents per unit in 1923

The pharmaceutical company Lilly agreed to provide insulin for free during the experimental period. After that period, the company then sold the drug at cost. Insulin was then sold at the wholesale price of 5 cents per unit. At that time, a diabetic patient spent 40 cents to a dollar for insulin. This was not cheap in those days. It is still not cheap today.

5. The first person to benefit from insulin was a 14-year old boy

Leonard Thompson was a 14-year old emaciated charity patient at the Toronto General Hospital who received the first pancreatic extract injections on January 11, 1922 . The first treatment included 7.5 cc of the experiment drug injected in each buttock. The first results were disappointing and was even complicated by the formation of an abscess at the injection site. The extract was purified further and the second treatment was a success. He died in 1935 from pneumonia. His pancreas is preserved at the Banting Institute museum.

6. The longest survivor of the original insulin took more than 60,000 injections.

One of Banting’s patients, Teddy Ryder, was 6 years old when he first received the new miracle drug insulin on July 15, 1922. He lived a full life, worked as a librarian and travelled the world. He passed away on March 8, 1993 from heart failure. Throughout his life he paid close attention to his diet and stayed true to his insulin regimen.

7. Insulin production was affected by Prohibition

Alcohol was an essential element used in the production of insulin. Prohibition thus hampered production, and worsened the already limited supply of insulin during that period.


One thought on “Insulin: 7 Things You Didn’t Know

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  1. Insulin is a fascinating drug. I thought I pretty much knew a lot about it (as an endocrinologist/ diabetologist) and still enjoyed learning something new with points you made in #s 1, 2, 4, and 7. THANKS!!!


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