The Canadian Doctor Who Discovered Insulin and Gave it to the World for Free

On this day in 1922, a dying 14-year-old named Leonard Thompson received the first purified dose of insulin for his diabetes at Toronto General Hospital in Canada.

Barely six months before Thompson received his life-saving dose, a team of researchers led by his doctor, Frederick Banting of the University of Toronto, discovered that a hormone known as insulin regulates blood sugar, successfully isolating it to treat humans. (As is common with such groundbreaking work, Banting’s colleagues came from various countries and were building on the research of German and Romanian scientists.)

Though widely seen as a modern disease (and it is indeed more common) diabetes is one of the oldest known scourges of humanity; it is described in Egyptian and Indian medical records well over 2,000 years ago. In the 19th century, a 10-year-old child with Type 1 diabetes would typically live for just another year; now, thanks to discoveries like insulin, people with Type 1 diabetes can expect to live almost 70 years.

Until Banting’s achievement, the recommended treatment for Type 1 diabetes was a near-starvation diet, in order to keep sugar from accumulating in the blood. Thompson was just 65 pounds, and probably days from death, before Banting injected him with insulin; another round of shots successfully stabilized his blood sugar levels—and spared him and countless others from enduring such a long, painful, and dangerous treatment.

Banting rightfully won the Nobel Prize in Medicine the following year, along with Scottish team member John James Rickard Macleod. (At age 32, Banting remains the youngest Nobel laureate in the field). Believing that his colleague Charles Herbert Best also deserved recognition as a co-discoverer, the humble Canadian doctor shared his prize money with him.

But more telling of Banting’s character and contributions to humanity was what he did with this groundbreaking—and potentially lucrative—accomplishment: He refused to patent it and make a profit even after being offered $1 million and royalties for the formula. Banting believed that the Hippocratic Oath prohibited him from profiting off such lifesaving treatment, stating that “insulin belongs to the world, not to me”. His co-laureate Macleod likewise turned down the opportunity.

Thus, it was Banting’s teammates Best and James Collip, a Canadian biochemist, who were officially named as inventors in the patent application—but they immediately transferred all rights to their insulin formula to the University of Toronto for just one dollar. All these men believed that insulin should be made as widely available as possible, without any barriers such as cost—something quaint by today’s standards, where the costs of the four leading types of insulin in the U.S. have more than tripled over the past decade, to roughly $250 a vial (some patients need two to four vials a month).

No doubt, Banting and his colleagues would be spinning in their graves.