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culture

Toronto Invents: Insulin

How did the press cover one of our city's major medical discoveries?

We look at concepts and products that, for better and worse, were developed in Toronto.

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Frederick Grant Banting and Charles H. Best, University of Toronto Archives, A1978-0041/001(53).

We face a daily barrage of media stories about “amazing” medical breakthroughs. While most of these innovations will eventually fall by the wayside or be exploited by those looking to make some fast money, significant developments do emerge from time to time, even if it takes a while for their impact to become evident.

One such discovery was made in Toronto: insulin treatment for diabetics, as developed by a University of Toronto research team during 1921 and 1922. How did the local press initially treat the work of Frederick Banting, Charles Best, and their associates?

The first hint appeared in the January 14, 1922 edition of the Toronto Star. Reporter Roy Greenaway interviewed project supervisor J.J.R. Macleod, who was leery about advance publicity, lest the public get its hopes up. Greenaway agreed to stress that the university’s work was still preliminary. “We are all working very conservatively striving to awaken no false hopes,” Macleod observed. His fears were quickly realized, as the team was flooded with inquiries from diabetics. Banting, whose relationship with his supervisor was testy, believed Macleod was stealing credit for the research. The two discussed the matter and agreed that Macleod would publish the names of the research team alphabetically on future papers, placing Banting and Best’s names at the top.

Greenaway kept following the story, prodding the research team for details as patients injected with pancreatic extract showed favourable results through the early months of 1922. In his account of the discovery of insulin, historian Michael Bliss suspects that G.W. Ross, Banting’s former teacher and Greenaway’s doctor, put the reporter in contact with Banting and Best just as a research paper on their work was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The story broke in the Star the same day the journal was mailed out.

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“TORONTO DOCTORS ON TRACK OF DIABETES CURE” screamed the front page headline of the Star‘s March 22, 1922 edition. A photo of Banting, Best, J.B. Collip, and Macleod was captioned, “Have they robbed diabetes of its terrors?” The piece opened with a mix of disclaimers and optimism:

A message of hope to sufferers from diabetes goes out authentically today from the medical research laboratories of the University of Toronto. The modesty of medical men and scientific investigators of the genuine brand attempts to minimize the results obtained. The harm of exaggeration and the injustice to both parents and research men in awakening false and premature hopes before the extracts can possibly be manufactured cannot be over-emphasized. But the fact remains that one of the most important discoveries in modern medical research has been made at the university here. It is not a cure for diabetes, its authors state. Within six months, however, their discovery will be used on a large scale, they hope, to prolong life quite considerably at least. There will be no secrecy, as from the beginning. The medical profession will know all the facts.

The most significant statement the Star found in the journal article released that day? “The effects observed in de-pancreatized animals have been paralleled in man.” The article detailed the experiments, including tests on a teenager named Leonard Thompson. When Greenaway asked when treatment would be available, Banting replied, “not for three to six months.” Macleod indicated that the results so far were so impressive that the team would speed up its remaining work.

Clockwise from top left: Frederick Banting, Charles Best, J B  Collip, and J J R  Macleod  Presumably the image that originally appeared on the front page of the March 22, 1922 edition of the Toronto Star, this version comes from the March 26, 1922 edition of Star Weekly

Clockwise from top left: Frederick Banting, Charles Best, J.B. Collip, and J.J.R. Macleod. Presumably the image that originally appeared on the front page of the March 22, 1922 edition of the Toronto Star, this version comes from the March 26, 1922 edition of Star Weekly.

The Star continued its coverage the following day. Under the headline “DIABETES WORK EPOCH-MAKING, SAY PHYSICIANS,” several prominent local doctors praised Banting and his team for their work. The paper also talked to University of Toronto President Sir Robert Falconer, who defended the costs associated with the team’s research. “The greatest discoveries in the world first appeared when they were not anticipated,” Falconer observed. “But they were the result of long preparation. Research work brings results in time.”

As for the other local papers, the Globe and the Telegram both provided short summaries of the team’s work on March 23, 1922. Unfortunately, the Telegram devoted similar space that week to another “medical breakthrough.” A photo published on March 22 depicted a Brazilian physician who had developed a “queer instrument” which he claimed altered the bloodstream in a way that could turn black-skinned people white.

Front page, the Globe, October 26, 1923

Front page, the Globe, October 26, 1923.

That the University of Toronto team was deemed less worthy of a photo in the Telegram than a quack wasn’t unusual. Then as now, the press announced a steady stream of miracle cures, most of which never produced long-term benefits. But as the work on insulin garnered attention in the United States and Great Britain, press interest increased, along with inquiries from readers about when treatment would be available. When the Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded to Banting and Macleod in October 1923, the story was front-page news.

Do you have suggestions for future installments of Toronto Invents? Feel free to send them to us.

Additional material from The Discovery of Insulin by Michael Bliss (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1982), the March 22, 1922 and March 23, 1922 editions of the Toronto Star, and the March 22, 1922 edition of the Telegram.

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