First Use of Insulin on a Human

Today marks 100 years since insulin was first used on a human being to treat diabetes.

A little history on the discovery of insulin.

Insulin was discovered in the pancreas by two German researchers, Oskar Minkowski and Joseph von Mering, in 1889. They also made the connection between polyuria (excessive urination) and diabetes, and tested glucose levels in the urine of animals. Mering and Minkowski also discovered that total pancreatectomy in dogs produces severe diabetes and could not survive very long without their pancreas.

In 1910, Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer suggested that only one chemical was missing from the pancreas in people with diabetes and came to call this chemical, insulin. From the Latin word “ínsula” meaning island, referring to the insulin-producing pancreatic cells known as the islets of Langerhans.

In 1921, a young surgeon named Frederick Banting and his assistant Charles Best figured out how to remove insulin from a dog’s pancreas. They were able to inject the healthy dog’s insulin in to a dog with severe diabetes and keep it alive for 70 days. The dog only died when there was no more extract to inject. Banting and Best worked with biochemists James Collip and John Macleod to develop a more refined and pure form of insulin from the pancreases of cattle.

A year later, in 1922, a 14-year-old named Leonard Thompson, was dying from type 1 diabetes in a Toronto hospital. On January 11, 1922, he was given an injection of slightly purified insulin and within 24 hours, Leonard’s dangerously high blood sugar levels dropped. However, he developed an abscess at the injection site and still had high levels of ketones.

James Collip continued his work on purifying insulin so it would be safe for human use and on January 23, 1922 Leonard was given a second injection and it was a complete success. Since the very first insulin injections, we have come a long way in diabetes care.

We have access to insulin pumps, continuous glucose monitors, oral medications, different varieties of insulin, diabetes phone apps, and better research in diabetes now. We also have access to pancreatic transplants. Though they may not be affordable to everyone now, we can only hope that one day it will be available for all.


Mayo Clinic Proceedings
American College of Cardiology

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