Before insulin, diabetes was a death sentence. It still is | Erica Jong

When Dr Frederick Banting and chemist Charles Best were awarded the Nobel prize in medicine in 1912, the only category of medicine they were honoured for was the discovery of insulin, their breakthrough in…

Before insulin, diabetes was a death sentence. It still is | Erica Jong

When Dr Frederick Banting and chemist Charles Best were awarded the Nobel prize in medicine in 1912, the only category of medicine they were honoured for was the discovery of insulin, their breakthrough in developing an alternative to sugar that made diabetics’ lives a lot better.

Before insulin, diabetics’ lives were a lot less wonderful. Gene hunting had been going on for a long time by that time, but this new process would change the disease’s life-threatening impact on patients.

For me, it means that on my birthday in October this year I was able to walk around the room without losing my balance. I spend more time out in the fresh air than in a hospital bed and I eat out a lot. There is no advantage to this over living at home, and I’m also lucky enough to be able to go to doctor whenever I have a cough or something, which is a lot of the time.

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Before this discovery, a diagnosis of diabetes meant a life of concern, of holding your breath until the day you die, because you didn’t know what the disease was doing to your body. Once a diagnosis, even decades later, was given, you knew with a profound sense of relief that you were not going to die.

“Before insulin, diabetes was a death sentence,” said founder of the National Diabetic Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) Norman Rockwell in 1949. I have no doubt that I would have felt the same, had I had an insulin needle stuck in my arm.

Of course, I still take my insulin with my finger and put it in my body. I have two permanent auto-detections, in my arms and my hips, but the response time is so minute and the complications so dangerous it is literally a lifesaver.

But the world has benefited enormously from the work of the first and secondly the most famous man in the world of medicine, Sir Francis Crick. He got both Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin to sign on to the group of researchers who asked the government to support them with such a big grant that they would not be overrun by unknown creatures.

This is the world that Crick helped to birth and the world is a better place because of his brilliant collaboration with Banting and Best. Yet at the time Crick was blacklisted for his discoveries of how a virus in a bacterium was able to cause cancer, at a time when it was fashionable to say he was untalented.

I hope I can live long enough to see the time when I’m as old as their modern descendants and nobody will say I’m unscientific.

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