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Why diabetes no longer means death

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 20 October 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c5832
  1. Janice Hopkins Tanne, journalist, New York
  1. janice{at}

Ninety years ago non-human insulin production changed diabetes from a death sentence to a chronic disease. This exhibition and book celebrate the discovery, writes Janice Hopkins Tanne

It all happened so fast. In the middle of the night on 31 October 1920 Frederick Banting, a struggling young doctor in Ontario, had an idea about how to treat type 1 diabetes. By May 1921 he had persuaded John Macleod, professor of physiology at the University of Toronto, to let him use a laboratory there to begin animal experiments. In December 1921 they presented their results with dogs to the American Physiological Society. In January 1922 the first human patient was successfully treated with insulin. By late May 1922 Banting and his university colleagues reached an agreement with Eli Lilly and Company to produce insulin from beef and pork pancreases. In October 1923 Banting and Macleod won the Nobel prize in physiology.

Banting, a mediocre 1917 graduate of the University of Toronto’s medical school, had treated soldiers on the front lines in the first world war, been wounded, and been awarded the Military Cross for bravery. Back in Canada he floundered while trying to set up a practice in …

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