On the 23rd of January 2012, marked the 90th anniversary of the first person with Type 1 Diabetes in the world being treated with insulin, a 14 year old boy called Leonard Thompson. It reminded me of a book that has recently come on the market to commerate the 90th anniversary of the discovery of insulin called ‘Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin and the Making of a Medical Miracle’ by Arthur Ainsberg & Thea Cooper. What a fascinating read!

The book tells the story of Elizabeth Hughes, who was the daughter of one of Americas most famous politicians, Charles Evans Hughes. Elizabeth was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in 1919, at eleven years of age. At the time, prognosis with diabetes was very poor. Before the discovery of insulin in 1921, the average person diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes survived only 11 months. From 1900 to 1919, half of all people diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes died within 2 years.

Elizabeths parents were desperate and turned to Frederick Allen, who at the time was regarded as the worlds leading expert in diabetes. Allen had invented the ‘starvation diet’ as a treatment for diabetes, cutting Elizabeths daily recommended intake of calories from 2200 a day to just 400 calories, which Elizabeth adhered to perfectly, in the hope a cure maybe found.

 As she wasted away, insulin had been discovered by Frederick Banting, Charles Best, John James Richard Macleod and James Collip in the University of Toronto. On hearing the news, Elizabeths mother wrote to Frederick Banting, desperate for him to treat her daughter, which he did.

On August 15th, 1922, Elizabeth Hughes sat in Bantings office in Toronto and became one of the first people in the world to be injected with insulin. Quite poignantly, just before Banting injected her he asked:

“Will you promise me one thing, Miss Elizabeth Hughes? Will you promise me that if you get well–when you get well–you will grow up to be whoever and whatever you want to be and you won’t let anyone persuade you to do or be something or someone else?”

Not long after, Elizabeth began to flourish, gaining weight and growing taller. Three months after that meeting, she left Toronto, and disappeared from the limelight. Many had thought she had died, until 58 years later, when Micheal Bliss author of the The Discovery of insulin decided to contact to Elizabeths husband, William Gossett, to find out what had happened her.imagine his surprise when Elizabeth herself answered. She led an exceptionally private life and was quite distressed that she had been found, as she had not even told her own children she had diabetes until they were 18 years old!

It is easy to forget at times, how far we have come from those days, when blood glucose monitors, insulin pumps and disposable syringes were all but a distant dream. We owe alot to Elizabeth and her bravery, for at the time, insulin as still an unstable and experimental drug. The discovery of insulin has been a modern day medical miracle of the 20th century, not only preventing people with diabetes from dying, but allowing them to lead normal, healthy lives.

Elizabeth Hughes died at 73 years of age from pneumonia, having taken insulin all her life. She led a full life, having graduated from college, getting married and had 3 children.

For further information on Elizabeth Hughes and the story of insulin go to http://www.breakthroughthebook.com/

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