Insulin, normally produced in the pancreas, is a hormone that allows the body’s cells to metabolize carbohydrates into energy. People with diabetes, like me, don’t make it because their immune systems have destroyed the region of the pancreas responsible for its production; food passes through their bodies without ever being properly broken down. A diabetic could eat a supermarket aisle’s worth of food and still die, essentially, of starvation.
And, for thousands of years, that’s exactly what happened to them. The disease was recognized as far back as Ancient Greece; in the first century C.E., a physician described the disease as “a melting down of the flesh and limbs into urine,” because of the frequent urination and weight loss it induces. Untreated diabetics—and, for thousands of years, there was no treatment—slowly wither away until they pass into coma and die. At the start of 2009, when my body stopped producing insulin, I weighed 185 pounds. By September, I was down to 125.
In the early 20th Century, the best therapy for diabetics was a strict “starvation diet” that could keep them alive, just barely, for months, maybe years—as long as some other illness didn’t get them first—though many found it impossible to bear the persistent hunger; they would break their fewer-than-1000-calories, thrice-boiled-vegetables diets and die. Then, in the early 1920s, several researchers working at the University of Toronto were able to isolate insulin from bovine pancreases and produce a non-toxic, injectable version for humans. They won a Nobel Prize for their efforts, and by 1923 it was available commercially in North America.
The public perceived the discovery of insulin as a bona fide miracle: skeletal persons clinging to comatose lives were not only revived but restored to full health. Medicine had never before brought people back from the brink of death so completely, so startlingly. The discovery of penicillin, even, was still several years away.
But insulin is not a cure.
Part Two, in which Henry explains how insulin can be deadly—using more examples from his personal life!—appeared the following day.