I’m now reading Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg’s Breakthrough, described by the cover jacket as the “heartwarming true story of the discovery of insulin,” which in reality is rather the opposite of heartwarming.

Type 1 diabetic Elizabeth Hughes is 11 years old and weighs just 45lbs, put on a starvation diet to keep her metabolism in balance just long enough for a Canadian doctor called Banting to ligate the pancreatic ducts of a dog and extract what magical serum he could from the Islets of Langerhans. A magical serum that he would later use to lower the blood sugar in other diabetic dogs.

The most striking part so far has been the admission of Banting that, had he been more familiar with the literature on the extraction of insulin (which documented failure after failure after failure), he would not have pursued his idea to ligate a dog’s pancreas and try to collect insulin at all.

Had he not experimented on those dogs at the time, it could have been decades longer until someone did, and decades after that until someone else figured out how to synthesize insulin in labs and get it effectively to those who needed it. It’s not to say I’d be directly affected by Banting ‘not trying’ but it’s certainly interesting to think about all of the things we haven’t done, or made, or discovered, just because we were afraid of all of the failures that came before us.

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