cover image Insulin: A Hundred-Year History

Insulin: A Hundred-Year History

Stuart Bradwel. Polity, $35 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-509-55072-2

“The story of insulin is one that highlights the shortcomings of an inherently destructive economic system,” writes historian Bradwel in his meticulous debut. As early as 1552 BCE, diabetes was a documented disease that caused patients to waste away while passing copious amounts of urine. It wasn’t until 1889 that two German scientists, Oskar Minkowski and Josef Von Mering, realized the role of the pancreas as a manufacturer of insulin, and that those suffering from diabetes were lacking in the hormone. In the 1920s, Toronto researchers Charles Best, Frederick Banting, and James Colip developed a way to extract insulin from animal pancreases and inject it into diabetic patients, balancing their sugar levels. Over the next 100 years, this process was perfected as the development of insulin shifted from animal-based to synthetic. Meanwhile, doctors began to understand the two types of the disease, Types 1 and 2, and the role lifestyle and food choices play in treatment. However, despite now being a very treatable condition, diabetes has remained a death sentence for many in the U.S. because of severe overpricing by the three major companies that produce insulin, and widespread lack of access to healthcare. Bradwel’s scientific narrative is accessible and accompanied by intriguing details about the social and cultural history of the disease. The result is a cogent history that also exposes the inadequacy of current medical systems. (Sept.)