The discovery of insulin promised a new age for an ancient condition but introduced unexpected challenges. James S. Hirsch explores the riveting history of this miracle drug on its 100th anniversary.
It was hailed as a miracle cure, a boon to the human race, an elixir that turned death into life and whose discovery was freighted with Biblical allusions. This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of insulin, and the drug, first coaxed from the pancreas of dogs by unheralded scientists in a crude Canadian laboratory, remains one of the most remarkable feats in medical history.
But the history of insulin is not one of unalloyed celebration. It has moments of triumph as well as grievance. Like diabetes itself, it’s complicated.
It’s easy to lose sight of what insulin’s discovery represented in 1921. As the historian John Barry notes, the previous 2,500 years had seen virtually no progress in the treatment of patients, and the world had just emerged from the Spanish flu, which killed more than 50 million people and was ultimately subdued not by medical science but by the immune system’s adapting to the virus.
Anyone today who uses insulin does not need to be told of its life-saving power, and I am hardly an impartial observer, as it has kept me alive for the past 44 years.