The First, 90 Years Ago

Everyone has for the past year, even a little longer, has been going on about the anniversary of when insulin came on the scene and changed the face of how people with diabetes could live, not just survive.

First, there was the date on Halloween 1920 that the esteemed Dr. Banting actually came across the idea for what would become life-sustaining insulin.

Then, there was the development of that idea in 1921.

Of course, then there's the date that creation came to fruition and the first person actually received the benefit of insulin. That was Jan. 11, 1922 - exactly nine decades ago.

A 14-year old boy named Leonard Thompson was dying at Toronto General Hospital, but it was this newly-developed drug known as insulin that gave him a chance to live. Even though it was initially unsuccessful, a revised formula was successful and it changed everything. No one really paid much attention outside the medical community, until August 1922 when the now-infamous Elizabeth Hughes hooked up with Dr. Banting in Toronto and made headlines with her receipt of insulin.

Elizabeth chose a lifetime of silence about diabetes. That was the way of the world, at the time. She's especially meaningful to me, not just because of her history-making insulin injection but also because as an adult, she was able to move to Michigan and become one of the founding trustees of Oakland University where I went to school and graduated. Elizabeth became Elizabeth H. Gossett, married to the then- general counsel for Ford Motor Company and a pivotal player in the local arts and civic community - but diabetes wasn't a part of that. Her adult endo was Dr. Frederick Whitehouse in Detroit, the medical professional my own mother now sees. I had the chance to talk with Dr. Whitehouse a handful of months back, and he talked about his experience with Elizabeth Gossett.

"It's my opinions that Ms. Hughes Gossett was a 'closet diabetic person.' These people with diabetes commonly did not 'wear their disease on their shirt sleeve' like many do now. I believe the current atmosphere for the person with a chronic disease is much more healthy than before. You had diabetes, (that meant) you were 'damaged goods' and might have no job, no insurance, no full life, and be advised not to reproduce, etc. The family often kept their chronically ill family member in the back rooms."

When Elizabeth died of pneumonia and a heart attack at age 73 on April 25, 1981, her Michigan obituaries didn't mention diabetes or signal her significance to the Diabetes Community. Actually, I remember reading something in diaTribe written by James Hirsch at one point that Elizabeth had actually gotten ill during a trip overseas and came back with sky-high blood sugars in the 700s. Dr. Whitehouse confirmed all of that from memory, connecting dots that her pneumonia led to blood sugar craziness and eventually, well. It's all history, and her diabetes wasn't something she wore on her sleeve like so many do now. It wasn't until years later her family even started mentioning it and talking about it openly.

Still, Dr. Whitehouse describes as really a "remarkable woman" who did what she did to live successfully with diabetes, regardless of how much or little she talked openly about it. She set the standard for how generations lived and managed their conditions from the very start in 1922, and created the foundation for living successfully.

Just as we celebrate those who've accomplished their dreams despite diabetes, from driving race cars to climbing mountains and swimming or skiing in the Olympics, Elizabeth was one of the first to reach that dream of living a "normal" life. We owe so much to her, and to Leonard.

Of course, to Dr. Banting and all those who set in motion what happened 90 years ago.

Now, we just need to make sure everyone has access to insulin when they need it. That becomes our mission that we can hopefully do something about by the time we reach the 100-year anniversary.


Jonah said…
Leonard Thompson died just thirteen years later, when an illness caused him to develop DKA. Between his first and last diabetes hospitalizations, he was hospitalized four times for reasons of diabetes. Insulin is not enough.
Anonymous said…
Great information. Thanks for sharing.
Wow! You really do know the coolest people. You're mom included. :)
Pearlsa said…
What a wonderful day January 11th is!
DiabetesDuo said…
Very well said, Mike...and thanks for saying it!

Brad S.
Tim Brand said…
Nice story! My niece goes to Oakland University, I will send this post to her to read. Of course anything about Michigan History I'm eager to read. Thanks for sharing.

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