Diabetes History on Exhibit

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One of the great things about living in New York is there’s never a shortage of museums — and new museum exhibits — to visit. Recently I had the pleasure of attending a press preview of a new show at the New-York Historical Society Museum, entitled “Breakthrough: The Dramatic Story of the Discovery of Insulin.”


AutoSyringe, 1979. Courtesy of Medtronic through Eli Lilly and Company Archives.

The exhibit commemorates the discovery of insulin in 1921, its initial use in humans in 1922, and the subsequent effort to produce it on a large enough scale to supply it to all of the people who needed it. It includes photos of and letters to and from diabetes patients and researchers of that era; photos, a film clip, lab notebooks, and other documents from insulin manufacturer Eli Lilly and Company; and a few examples of historical diabetes equipment, including some early insulin vials and syringes, a bulky early insulin pump called the AutoSyringe from 1979 (which I didn’t even recognize as an insulin pump), and some more modern but still dated-looking insulin pumps from the early 1980’s.

A small portion of the show focuses on Elizabeth Hughes (daughter of statesman Charles Evans Hughes), who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 11 and became one of the first people to try insulin in 1922. A few of her letters from that time are on view, along with family photos and pages from her logbook detailing not just how much insulin she took and how many grams of carbohydrate, protein, and fat she ate, but also how much cream, eggs, butter, bacon, meat or fish, “gel,” vegetables, fruit, cheese, and “oat.” she consumed each day as she gained back the weight she had lost, both from her diabetes and from the near-starvation diet that had kept her alive for three years.

The “Breakthrough” exhibit runs through January 31, 2011, so anyone planning a visit to New York City between now and then will want to put it on their list of things to do. (The New-York Historical Society Museum is easy to find: It’s on Central Park West between 76th and 77th Streets, right next door to the American Museum of Natural History.)

If you can’t make it to the show in person, you can see many of the documents in the show related to Elizabeth Hughes, as well as those of some other early insulin users, online at the University of Toronto Web site.

Girl Injecting Herself
Girl injecting herself with insulin (Lilly Girl), 1930. Courtesy of Eli Lilly and Company Archives.

The Historical Society exhibit was inspired by a recently published book with a similar title, Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle, written by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg and published by St. Martin’s Press in 2010. Breakthrough is a work of historical fiction, with imagined dialogue, thoughts, feelings, and even perspiration mixed in with the historical facts.

Elizabeth Hughes’s story has also been told in a more conventional biographical style by history professor Caroline Cox in her book, The Fight to Survive: A Young Girl, Diabetes, and the Discovery of Insulin, published by Kaplan Publishing in 2009.

Readers interested in the history of diabetes treatment may also enjoy the book The Discovery of Insulin, written by professor of Canadian History Michael Bliss and often referred to as the “definitive” book on the development of insulin. It was first published by the University of Chicago Press in 1982, and a 25th-anniversary edition was published in 2007. While Elizabeth Hughes makes an appearance in this book as well, the action focuses primarily on researcher Frederick Banting, his lab assistant Charles Best, and assorted other colleagues (and rivals) as they try to figure out what insulin is and how to isolate it so it can be used therapeutically.

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