Discovery of Insulin

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1922

Though diabetes is one of the most common modern diseases, there was for generations no hope of recovering from it. One merely adopted a radically constricted diet. Or bodily decay and death advanced fairly quickly.

Hunting for something better, Nathaniel Potter applied to the new Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1916 for a grant to study diabetes patients as they underwent different clinical treatments. He received $7,500 annually from Carnegie, on the condition that he also raise $20,000 externally. Potter got Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, California, to build a laboratory for his research alongside their medical facility. When Potter died in 1919, William Sansum from the University of Chicago arrived to head the clinic in his stead.

At this same time, the Carnegie Corporation was also funding research in Canada to extract insulin from the pancreas of dogs. Scientists sought to convert the canine research into a possible injectable treatment for human beings. By 1922, insulin administered at Toronto General Hospital brought a diabetic child back to health—the first use of insulin to treat human beings. The Canadian work eventually led to a Nobel Prize for the lead researchers.

Because they were fellow Carnegie grant recipients, Sansum was corresponding with his Canadian counterparts throughout their experimenting. The Torontans offered detailed guidance in the hope Sansum would be able to improve the difficult process of extracting insulin. Soon, Sansum successfully extracted insulin at the Potter clinic, and made rapid progress at increasing its purity and strength. Four months after the Canadians, he became the first doctor to administer insulin to a patient in the United States.

Next, the Carnegie Foundation contributed additional funds to manufacture insulin injections on a large scale. Kits began to appear in drug stores by 1923. In the words of Duke University historians, “hundreds of thousands of patients near death from diabetes…subsequently recovered.” In the years since, millions have had their lives saved or lengthened via insulin treatments.