Insulin at 100: July 1921

One of the 1921-2021 Centennials in the History of Canadian Science and Technology

First posted Friday, July 23, 2021 / Yom shishi, 14 Av, 5781.

By David Orenstein, Danforth CTI, Retired

Back in the good old days, pre-pandemic that is, if I had writer’s block on any project, large or small, I’d head to one of the many cafés or pubs in my magical Riverdale neighbourhood in the east side of Downtown Toronto. Preferably on their patio.

From the nearby Rooster Coffeehouse patio, looking south, can be seen the shiny new building of Bridgepoint Health, which was known as the Toronto Isolation Hospital 100 years ago in 1921.

In July of that year, Charles Best was continuing with the second half of the student assistantship, working on Dr. Frederick Banting’s highly speculative project, at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine, of finding a way to control diabetes by isolating the biochemical that maintains sugar balance in healthy people.

As I write, at 11:40am on my front porch (26C, going up to 29C, Humidex 33C), I read that (Bliss, p.66) Best and Banting were keeping up their vivisectionism to create “experimental diabetes in totally depancreatized dog[s]…. All healing was difficult in the extreme heat of a Toronto July. Operating in  [their] dingy little room was a sweltering ordeal… [of] heat and dirt and unbelievable stench.”

And just imagine how stressful it was for the dogs!

On July 5 and 6, 1921, “in temperatures over 97 degrees Fahrenheit {or (97F – 32F)/(1.8F/C) = 36C}, they opened up all the dogs, five had normal pancreases. Only two… showed the expected degeneration…. Two of the five dogs died within a day of the operation. So did the two depancreatized dogs, suffering from infection in the heat.”

If I had been the Faculty of Medicine’s bioethics officer, I would have shut them down. But then where would people with diabetes be today?

Yet by the end of the month, “Sat. July 30, …[t]he pancreases in the two original duct-tied dogs had been degenerating… [long] enough… to destroy all the cells providing the external secretion. [So] Banting removed the pancreas, apparently atrophied, from dog 391….

“At 10:15 [that morning], Banting and Best injected four cc of their extract into the vein of the white terrier, dog 410. Its blood sugar at the time of the injection was .20….[A]t 11:15 [it] had fallen by 40 percent to .12….[Then] five more cc. were injected. In the next hour [it] barely moved, to .11. Despite another injection, by 2:15 it was [rising] again, to .14.”

They then “decided to give it sugar… through a stomach tube…. ‘Tube first passed into lung dog nearly drowned… completely recovered in 15 min.’ .”

Cue the Bioethics Office!

“[T]he terrier’s blood sugar rose and the extract did not bring it down… though… very little of the sugar appeared in the dog’s urine or vomit. After a… 6:15 reading on that Saturday, night, [they] left.”

Sunday morning, July 31, “they found the terrier in a coma. They took one blood sugar (.15) before it died…. Even so they were encouraged by their result: ‘The extract seemed to have a marked effect,’ Best wrote to Macleod….”

At the most charitable interpretation, I found it reminiscent of the old adage: The operation was a success, but the patient died. More strongly, the use of the stomach pump feels like deliberate torture of the poor dog. Combined with their utter lack of remorse, this all evokes thoughts of the German doctors of World War II experimenting on their very unwilling human subjects taken from the concentration and extermination camps.

“On Monday, August 1, they tried again.” But that’s another story.


Previous “Insulin at 100” CSTHA Blog Posts, all in 2021:

February 5, “Cover Story in Canada’s History”,

June 4, “The Summer of 1921”,

JSTOR Search Results for: Author “Michael Bliss”, Keyword “Insulin”,

Has 20 hits including 100 revies of  Michael Bliss (1982) The Discovery of Insulin

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