Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Nobel Laureates: Frederick Banting and J.J.R. Macleod


The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1923

"for the discovery of insulin"

Frederick Grant Banting (1891 - 1941) and John James Richard Macleod (1876 - 1935) won the Noble Prize in 1923 for discovering insulin and using it to relieve the symptoms of diabetes.

Frederick Banting was a physician who convinced J.J.R. Macleod to lend him space and funds to work in Macleod's lab during the summer of 1921. Macleod assigned a young medical student, Charles Best, to work with Banting. Over the summer Banting and Best worked out a purification scheme for insulin and they had some success in treating dogs whose pancreas had been removed.

When Macleod returned to Canada in the Fall he helped improve the protocols, provided more funds and more dogs, and started paying Banting a salary. Macleod brought James Collip, a visiting biochemistry Professor from Alberta, into the project to help improve the purification. The experiments were a success and the first patients were treated in January 1922.

Frederick Banting thought that Charles Best, and not Macleod, should have shared the Nobel Prize with him. This is one of the most famous Nobel Prize controversies. Banting shared his prize money with Best and Macleod shared his money with Collip.

The original building where the work was done no longer exists. It was torn down and replaced by a larger building where my office is currently located. The plaque commemorating the discovery of insulin is attached to the side of the J.J.R. Macleod Auditorium. Across the street is the C.H. Best Institute. The Banting & Best Department of Medical Research is a research department in the Faculty of Medicine. Busts of Banting and Best are prominently displayed in the lobby of my building.

Here's an excerpt from the Presentation Speech. It hints at another controversy; namely, whether the work of Banting and Macleod was truly original.

Nobel Laureates
We must not imagine that insulin is able to cure diabetes. How could that be possible if the cause of diabetes is to be found in the fact that the cells within our organism that produce the hormone necessary for the combustion of sugar are definitively destroyed? But insulin gives us the possibility of transforming the severe form to a milder one and thereby of restoring his capacity for work and a comparative state of health to the hopeless invalid who, despite the most trying and rigorous restrictions in diet, is constantly threatened by a fatal state of poisoning. Most striking is the effect of insulin in the cases in which the state of poisoning has already passed into that of diabetic coma, against which we have hitherto been helpless and which, before the days of insulin, inevitably led to death.

It could be prophesied with a very great degree of probability that such a substance as insulin some day would be produced from the pancreatic gland, and much of the work had been done beforehand by previous investigations, several of whom very nearly reached the goal. Consequently it also has been said that its discoverer was in a preeminent degree favoured by lucky circumstances. Even if this be so, yet there would seem to be cause to remember Pasteur's words: «La chance ne favorise que l'intelligence préparée.»1

The Professorial Staff of the Caroline Institute has considered the work of Banting and Macleod to be of such importance, theoretically and practically, that it has resolved to award them the great distinction of the Nobel Prize. Doctor Banting and Professor Macleod not having the opportunity of being present today, I have the honour of asking the British Minister to accept from His Majesty the King the prize, and to transfer it to the Laureates, together with the congratulations of the Professorial Staff of the Royal Caroline Institute.

1. Chance favors the prepared mind.

The images of the Nobel Prize medals are registered trademarks of the Nobel Foundation (© The Nobel Foundation). They are used here, with permission, for educational purposes only.


  1. The story of the discovery and first use of Insulin remains the paradigmatic "medical miracle". The before and after pictures of the first patients will take your breath away, for example

    Dr. Joslin appropriately commented: Joslin wrote, 'I had witnessed so many near resurrections that I realized I was seeing enacted before my very eyes Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones'.
    ... and behold, there were very many upon the valley; and lo, they were very dry. And he said to me, 'Son of man, can these bones live?'....
    And as I looked, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; .. and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great host.

  2. The awards ceremony speech was fascinating reading. It never is just one person who should be credited when a great discovery is made. There is always the groundwork laid by others before them that form the basis of that discovery.

    Banting himself was reading one of Oscar Minkowski's papers when he concluded that it was the very same digestive secretions that Minkowski had originally studied that were breaking down the islet secretion(s), which made it impossible to extract successfully. That is the point when jotted down a note for himself: "Ligate pancreatic ducts of the dog. Keep dogs alive till acini degenerate leaving islets. Try to isolate internal secretion of these and relieve glycosurea."

    This was the basis for the idea he presented to McCleod and thankfully Mcleod allowed him to use his laboratory for experimentation.

  3. Well, I read the original article by Nicolae Paulescu and I can say with certainty that he is the discoverer of insulin. I do not know how many actually bothered to compare the articles of Paulescu and Banting's ... but I did it. Not to mention the date of publication of the two articles ...