Insulin is a peptide hormone, produced by beta cells in the pancreas, and is central to regulating carbohydrate and fat metabolism in the body. It causes cells in the skeletal muscles, and fat tissue to absorb glucose from the blood.

In 1869, while studying the structure of the pancreas under a microscope, Paul Langerhans, a medical student in Berlin, identified some previously unnoticed tissue clumps scattered throughout the bulk of the pancreas. The function of the “little heaps of cells”, later known as the islets of Langerhans, initially remained unknown, but Edouard Laguesse later suggested they might produce secretions that play a regulatory role in digestion. Paul Langerhans’ son, Archibald, also helped to understand this regulatory role. The term “insulin” originates from insula, the Latin word for islet/island.

In 1889, the Polish-German physician Oscar Minkowski, in collaboration with Joseph von Mering, removed the pancreas from a healthy dog to test its assumed role in digestion. Several days after the removal of the dog’s pancreas, Minkowski’s animal-keeper noticed a swarm of flies feeding on the dog’s urine. On testing the urine, they found sugar, establishing for the first time a relationship between the pancreas and diabetes. In 1901 Eugene Lindsay Opie took another major step forward when he clearly established the link between the islets of Langerhans and diabetes: “Diabetes mellitus . . . is caused by destruction of the islets of Langerhans and occurs only when these bodies are in part or wholly destroyed”. Before Opie’s work, medical science had clearly established the link between the pancreas and diabetes, but not the specific role of the islets.

Over the next two decades researchers made several attempts to isolate – as a potential treatment – whatever the islets produced. In 1906 George Ludwig Zuelzer achieved partial success in treating dogs with pancreatic extract, but he was unable to continue his work. Between 1911 and 1912, E.L. Scott at the University of Chicago used aqueous pancreatic extracts, and noted “a slight diminution of glycosuria”, but was unable to convince his director of his work’s value; it was shut down. Israel Kleiner demonstrated similar effects at Rockefeller University in 1915, but World War I interrupted his work and he did not return to it.

In 1916 Nicolae Paulescu, a Romanian professor of physiology at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest, developed an aqueous pancreatic extract which, when injected into a diabetic dog, had a normalizing effect on blood-sugar levels. He had to interrupt his experiments because of World War I, and in 1921 he wrote four papers about his work carried out in Bucharest and his tests on a diabetic dog. Later that year, he published “Research on the Role of the Pancreas in Food Assimilation”

On January 11, 1922, Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old diabetic who lay dying at the Toronto General Hospital, was given the first injection of insulin. However, the extract was so impure, Thompson suffered a severe allergic reaction, and further injections were canceled. Over the next 12 days, Collip worked day and night to improve the ox-pancreas extract, and a second dose was injected on January 23. This was completely successful, not only in having no obvious side-effects but also in completely eliminating the glycosuria sign of diabetes. The first American patient was Elizabeth Hughes Gossett, the daughter of the governor of New York. The first patient treated in the U.S. was future woodcut artist James D. Havens; Dr. John Ralston Williams imported insulin from Toronto to Rochester, New York, to treat Havens.

Children dying from diabetic ketoacidosis were kept in large wards, often with 50 or more patients in a ward, mostly comatose. Grieving family members were often in attendance, awaiting the (until then, inevitable) death.

In one of medicine’s more dramatic moments, Banting, Best, and Collip went from bed to bed, injecting an entire ward with the new purified extract. Before they had reached the last dying child, the first few were awakening from their coma, to the joyous exclamations of their families.

Over the spring of 1922, Best managed to improve his techniques to the point where large quantities of insulin could be extracted on demand, but the preparation remained impure. The drug firm Eli Lilly and Company had offered assistance not long after the first publications in 1921, and they took Lilly up on the offer in April. In November, Lilly made a major breakthrough and was able to produce large quantities of highly refined insulin. Insulin was offered for sale shortly thereafter.