Insulin: A Hundred-year History

Stuart Bradwel
Polity Press, £25.00

Type 2 diabetes is reaching epidemic levels, increasing most quickly in low- and middle-income communities, propelled by cheap, sugary foods and drinks. This account of diabetes diseases, which traces their anatomical and physiological causes and essential control, is therefore welcome. The author’s work is all the more poignant as Bradwel suffers from type 1 diabetes mellitus.

Insulin production and regulation enable our body’s use of sugars as energy sources. Accounts of symptoms resembling diabetes are recorded as early as 1552 BC in Egyptian literature. An understanding of the pancreas’ role in controlling symptoms emerged in 1889. In 1922 researchers in Toronto, led by Federick Banting, tested pancreatic extracts on diabetic children with ‘miraculous’ effects. Subsequently, purification and identification of insulin was achieved by the Toronto team, spearheaded by biochemist James Collip.

Initial commercial production by Eli Lilly began and insulin became available in North America. This was quickly followed by licensed European manufacture. Bradwel accounts in detail the subsequent uptake of insulin and its success in controlling otherwise fatal diabetic symptoms.

Over the years treatment methods have moved on from self-administered injections to pads with electronic dosage controls that measure and feed the bloodstream. Healthy diets that minimise sugar content now help control diabetes in unison with insulin.

Finally, the author recounts in detail the social background for the availability and use of insulin. Medical and sociology students plus general lay readers will gain wider perspectives of diabetes and insulin from this book. Despite Bradwel overpoliticising in places, this is a valuable if somewhat turgid text.

Professor Geoffrey R Dixon FRSB