Dr. Banting: Called a Failure, Discovers Insulin

I often stare at an old photograph of Dr. Frederick Banting, the discoverer of insulin, to get ideas. I am inspired by his sheer tenacity. Against all odds, he succeeded in bringing insulin treatment into the world. I am completely in awe of how he had an idea and gave up everything right down to his old Ford to continue his research. He may have been trained as a surgeon with a special interest in orthopedics, but he forever changed the way diabetes is treated.

After Dr. Banting finished his residency at the Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto and the hospital failed to give him an appointment on staff, he set up practice in London, Ontario. Unfortunately, during his first month of practice, he only saw one patient. He needed a paying job, so he took a position as an assistant professor of physiology at the University of Western Ontario.

One October evening in 1920, Banting was preparing to give a lecture on diabetes, a topic that he knew nothing about; he didn’t even know how to spell the disease. While he was preparing, he was entranced by an article that had been published the month before on pancreatic stones, and how clamping the pancreatic duct could lead to regeneration of the injured pancreatic tissue. The islet cells remaining after the injury secreted a hormone directly into the bloodstream, which potentially had a controlling power over glucose metabolism. The article “Relation of Islets of Langerhans to Diabetes” inspired Banting so much that he scribbled down in his notebook, “Diabetus…Ligate the pancreatic ducts of dog. Keep dogs alive till acini degenerate leaving islets. Try to isolate the internal secretion to relieve glycosurea (sic).”

What followed was a process filled with medical politics, intrigue, and determination. Some colleagues ridiculed him for his research, and the head of his department said his experiments on insulin were unsuccessful in a 1921 letter. He ran out of money and had to scrape what he could together to continue his research. He persevered and the first injection of insulin was given on January 11, 1922 to 13-year-old Leonard Thompson, a boy who was surely going to die until Banting’s solution came out of the blue to rescue him.

To learn more about Dr. Banting’s life and work, or to visit his the historic site where insulin was first invented, go to or

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Claresa Levetan, M.D., is a noted endocrinologist with expertise spanning diverse areas of diabetes. She has been internationally recognized for the translation of science and technology into improved health care options for patients with diabetes. She served as an associate editor of the journals Clinical Diabetes and Diabetes Forecast.

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