November the 14th is the 125th birthday of the man who saved my life, and the lives of millions of others. Millions of people who, like me, have been diagnosed as a Type 1 Diabetic. His name is Dr Frederick Banting. So how did Dr Frederick Banting save our lives? Well, he was the guy who worked out how to extract insulin and administer it to Diabetic patients. Before this, Diabetes was treated by putting patients onto a brutal starvation diet, which wasn’t much better. You had the choice of dying from starvation, or of dying a painful death as your body shuts down, causing blindness, the loss of limbs and organ failure. It was a case of choosing which was the lesser of two evils.
References to Type 1 Diabetes can be found way back in the First Century AD, where it was first described and given it’s name by Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a Greek Physician. In 1869, German medical student Paul Langerhans discovered a group of cells stashed away in the pancreas, named the Islets of Langerhans after their discoverer. What they did, nobody yet knew. In 1889, two German researchers (Oscar Minkowski and Joseph von Mering) found that removing the pancreas of a dog would bring on the symptoms of Diabetes but were unable to work out how. Later, in 1901, Eugene L. Opie discovered that the Islets of Langerhans produce a hormone (later named insulin), which was linked to Diabetes. As we all now know, the lack of insulin is the cause of Type 1 Diabetes.
The mission now was to work out how to treat the fatal health condition. A few workers including Nicolae Paulescu, a Romanian medical professor, had managed to produce insulin extracts and test on Diabetic dogs and even a handful of humans, but these were either unsuccessful, lacked funds or halted by the First World War. In 1921, Dr Frederick Banting, a Canadian medical scientist became determined to be the man for the job. After studying past research, he managed to convince a skeptical John Macleod, Professor of Physiology at the University of Toronto, to provide him with a laboratory and research tools, including dogs, in order to work on his theory. He was also provided with a research assistant: Charles Best. Together, they experimented on the dogs, removing the pancreas of some in order to induce Diabetes, and using the pancreas of the others to create an injectable extract to attempt to treat the others. They were successful, but needed bigger organs to produce a larger quantity of insulin. With assistance from a biochemist named James Collip, they moved on to extracting the pancreas of cows. These trials were also a success and their focus shifted to humans. So convinced were they that they had found a way of treating Type 1 Diabetes, that they tested it on themselves, experiencing dizziness and weakness, the symptoms which we now know as Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels).
On January 11th 1922, the first Diabetic human was given an insulin injection, a 14 year old boy named Leonard Thomson. This attempt failed, but after refining the treatment, they tried again successfully on January 23rd 1922. Leonard lived until the age of 27 years old, when he succumbed to Pneumonia. In 1923, shrouded in controversy, Frederick Banting and John Macleod were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Banting believed that Charles Best was more deserving of the award than Macleod and decided to share his prize winnings with him. In turn, Macleod split his own winnings with Collip. The rest as they say is history!
As for myself and the millions of Type 1 Diabetics across the World, we will hold the four men in our hearts forever, giving our thanks every day. I remember reading an article where an eye witness had described being in a hospital ward full of children on deaths door, who magically came back to life after being given these insulin injections. It’s crazy to think that had I been diagnosed as little as 70 years before I was, I would never have reached my 7th birthday. As a mum myself, it breaks my heart to think of the parents who lost children to the then fatal disease. We are lucky to be here today, to celebrate World Diabetes Day. What was hailed as the greatest medical miracle in the 20th Century should indeed have it’s own special day. I will be wearing blue tomorrow, and I will be telling everyone I see why. If it wasn’t for the events of 1921, I wouldn’t be here to tell my tale and I wouldn’t be able to help educate people about the 4 T’s, the 4 main symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes: Toilet, Thirsty, Tired, Thinner. If you just skimmed through my post, baffled by Science (don’t worry, it happens to the best of us!), just please make sure you remember the 4 T’s, you could mean the difference between saving a child’s life in the future!
Click here to find out what I’m doing throughout November for Diabetes Awareness Month and feel free to join me! Happy Birthday Dr Banting!