What Does “The Discovery of Insulin” Have to do With New York?

10/05/2010 1:08 PM |

From Breakthrough at The New York Historical Society
  • From “Breakthrough” at The New York Historical Society

The dramatic story of the discovery of insulin has little to do with New York: the hormone was isolated by researchers in Toronto, mass produced by Eli Lily in Indianapolis. So it’s hard to see what business The New York Historical Society has presenting a show called “Breakthrough: The Dramatic Story of The Discovery of Insulin,” which opens there today. (They offer a tenuous connection to the Empire State by devoting a small section to Elizabeth Hughes, one of the earliest and most famous insulin patients and the daughter of onetime Secretary of State, New York governor and Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes.) Still, there’s no point complaining about the regional relevance of such an expertly streamlined show, one that dug so deep into several archives to come up with its engrossing exhibits. Like any great show, you can zip through in five minutes and walk away with the gist, or get lost in its collections for hours. We’re lucky to have it in New York, whether it would seem to belong here or not.

Combining graphics, text, illustration and artifact, “Breakthrough” offers a clear presentation of diabetes for newcomers to the subject: what it is, how it killed, who stopped the killing and how. Those with more experience—diabetics, their loved-ones, those who’ve read Michael Bliss’ “The Discovery of Insulin“—will be riveted by the heaps of historical curios. There are many framed researchers’ letters and notebook pages. They have the telegram informing one, Dr. Fred Banting, that he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize. And there are also fascinating relics from the peoples’ history of diabetes: a kit used to test blood sugar in urine; an early blood testing kit that resembles a small chemistry set; ancient ampoules, syringes and packaging.

It’s easy to read in history books that the discovery of insulin was a medical miracle. But what emerges from the show, inspired by a new, similarly titled book by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg, are the emotions tied up in it. Pages from a leading diabetes-doctor’s registry lists his patients’ names, addresses, dates of diagnosis, onset and death; post-insulin, the death dates start to change, from shortly after diagnosis to decades later. Some patients’ dates of death aren’t listed at all, implying they outlived the record keeper. Also moving are medals awarded by The Joslin Center, an early and leading diabetes clinic, to post-insulin diabetics for not dying. But perhaps the most moving item in the collection is a letter from Teddy Ryder, an early insulin patient, written in pencil and crude capital letters to Dr. Banting. “I AM A FAT BOY NOW AND I FEEL FINE,” it reads in part. “I CAN CLIMB A TREE.” Nearby photos are haunting, showing a gaunt and ghostly Ryder in 1922, and a plump, smiling one, 23 pounds heavier, a year later.

One of the show’s curators put it succintly: insulin transformed diabetes from a fatal disease to merely a chronic one. The show goes out of its way many times to note that insulin is not a cure—that it’s a treatment, that diabetics are still sick, that it’s a medical problem far from solved, that diabetes rates have remained steady or are rising globally. But the point can get lost amid all the justifiable hagiography of the men who discovered insulin. The most depressing point to emerge from “Breakthrough” is that in the 90 years since insulin was discovered, diabetics haven’t had any new heroes.