Today in Science History – January 11 – First Use of Insulin

Crystals of insulin.

On January 11, 1922, insulin was used for the first time on a human patient to treat diabetes. 

Frederick Banting and Charles Best surgically altered the pancreas of dogs. They tied off parts of the pancreas and allowed them to atrophy. After the pancreatic digestive cells were absorbed, several islet cells remained. They collected these cells and prepared an extract they called isletin. The removal of the pancreas effectively induced diabetes in the dogs. Injections of their extract managed to lower the blood sugar and keep the dog alive.

Further refinement of the process eliminated the need for dogs. They used fetal calf pancreas since the calves hadn’t developed the digestive glands. This improved the supply of insulin so there was enough for a human trial.

Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old diabetic at Toronto General Hospital was selected as the first case. He received an injection of insulin and his diabetes symptoms seemed to recede. Unfortunately, he developed an allergic reaction. This reaction was later traced to an impurity in their sample and a more purified sample was used two weeks later. Thompson survived for another 13 years using insulin until he died from pneumonia at age 27. Banting and Macleod would later earn the 1923 Nobel Prize in Medicine for this achievement and diabetics everywhere were given a chance at a normal life.

Notable Science History Events for January 11

1991 – Carl David Anderson died.

Carl David Anderson
Carl David Anderson Credit: Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology/Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Anderson was an American physicist who was awarded half the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the positron. The positron is an antimatter particle that is a positively charged electron. He also discovered with Seth Neddermeyer the muon particle. Muons are subatomic particles 207 times more massive than an electron.

Read more about Carl David Anderson on September 3 in Science History.

1988 – Isidor Isaac Rabi died.

Isidor Isaac Rabi
Isidor Isaac Rabi (1898 – 1988)
Nobel Foundation

Rabi was a German-American physicist who was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance. NMR is where magnetic nuclei in a magnetic field are exposed to an electromagnetic pulse and absorb energy from the pulse and radiate the energy back out. The energy radiated out depends on the magnetic field and quantum magnetic properties of the nuclei.

1924 – Roger Guillemin was born.

Guillemin is a French-American physiologist who shares half the 1977 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Andrew Schally for their discoveries about peptide hormone production in the brain. He isolated and synthesized three hormones produced in the hypothalamus region of the brain. These hormones control the activities of other hormone-producing glands in the body.

1922 – Insulin used to treat diabetes for the first time.

1884 – Theodor Schwann died.

Theodor Schwann
Theodor Schwann (1810 – 1882)

Schwann was a German physiologist who defined the basic unit of animal tissue structure was the cell and helped begin the study of cell biology. He proved the cellular origin of fingernails, tooth enamel, and feathers. He also discovered the digestive enzyme pepsin and coined the term ‘metabolism’ to describe the chemical reactions in living organisms necessary to stay alive.

1753 – Hans Sloane died.

Hans Sloane
Hans Sloane (1660 – 1753)
Wellcome Trust

Sloan was an English physician who amassed a large collection of books, samples of plants and animals and many other curiosities that became the basis of The British Museum. Upon his death, his personal collection was offered intact to the British government for the sum of £20,000 for his heirs. Parliament jumped at the offer and created the British Museum to house their new collection in 1753.