Breakthrough: Hughes and Banting

In my ongoing effort to remember what the heck I have read, some notes on a good (albeit not great, but a solid good) book: Breakthrough.

It is the story of the purification of insulin which has saved millions of lives.  The book itself focuses on the Canadian scientist Frederick Banting and a young American girl Elizabeth Hughes – who was one of the first to receive insulin.  The Chapters description of the book is excellent so take a read of that if you want a sense of the book and its story.

Young girl injecting herself with insulin.  Courtesy of the book's authors website:

Young girl injecting herself with insulin. Courtesy of the book’s authors website:

My thoughts on the book are two fold: a glimpse on a world gone by and a glimpse to a revered albeit fairly unsympathetic individual in the form of Dr. Banting.

The book starts with a look into a world of privilege for Elizabeth Hughes.  Born into wealth, power and status – her life changed in 1919 with the death sentence of a diagnosis of diabetes.  At that time, there was not a cure – only an existence that involved living in an isolated world away from the temptations of food and subsisting on a starvation diet. The images of emaciated bodies of young people who would haunt the world 25 years hence of Nazi concentration camps where self-inflicted by young people hoping to live long enough until there was a cure or a treatment for their affliction.

This is the glimpse into a world we know longer know, the world before the medical breakthroughs.  Although I was aware of effects of diabetes at an intellectual level, the book did a great job of bring it to a personal level.  That is the impact on a vibrant lovely young girl/woman who choose near starvation on the faint hope of a future cure.

In Canada (and certainly the developed world), diabetes is the most common chronic disease and its incidence is on the rise.  A scourge in first nation communities, its long term effects are heart breaking (blindness, amputation of limbs, other diseases).  As bad as these long-term effects are; dealing with them in the long-term short beats dying a horrible short-term death which was the scenario before insulin.

The other glimpse the book provides is into the competitive and ‘Keystone-cop-esque’ world of University research departments and Dr. Banting.  As a Canadian I wish I could say that Banting’s behaviour was an example to follow but alas he is a fairly unsympathetic character who was petty, jealous and quite frankly immature.  He was also driven to find a treatment for diabetes which allowed him to persevere in the face of setbacks and failure.  In the end, these failures are not remembered as well as his success in mitigating the horror of diabetes.

If you enjoy medical-history story and a fairly well written book about a time period distant but not that long ago – a well recommended read.  The authors have done a good job in weaving the personal stories of the two main protagonists (Banting and Hughes) around the larger historical drama.