Diabetes was recognized as a disease by the ancient Egyptians and named by the ancient Greeks, but it was not until 1921 that its cause was identified, and a treatment, insulin, was isolated by chemist Sir Frederick Banting.

Diabetes is link to the pancreas was confirmed in 1889 when two German researchers, Joseph von Mering and Oskar Mirkowski, removed the pancreas from dogs, and the dogs then developed diabetes. Scientists concluded that the pancreas must produce a chemical messenger that controls blood sugar levels, but they were a long way from identifying the chemical in question.

Then in 1920, Frederick Banting came up with an idea that seemed too simple to be true. As the pancreas secreted a protein-destroying enzyme, Banting thought that it might be destroying the very protein that scientist had been searching for; and that if the enzyme-secreting ducts were removed, the remainder of the pancreas might yield the elusive chemical messenger. After some persuasion, John Macleod professor of physiology at the University of Toronto, accepted Banting into the department, where Banting assisted by research student Charles Best, proved the theory correct. Then, in July 1921, with the help of the biochemist Bertham Collip, the managed to isolate a pure extract of the vital protein, which they called insulin, and the three of them patented: “A method of preparing extracts of pancreas, suitable for administration to the human subject.”

The first patient to be given insulin was 14-year old Leonard Thompson, who was treated at Toronto General Hospital on January 11, 1922, by Walter A. Campbell and Alma A. Fletcher – Thompson had been expected to die, but he survived and went on to lead a relatively normal life with daily doses of insulin. The discovery and production of insulin was such an important medical breakthrough that Banting and Macleod were jointly awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

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