After Frederick Banting came up with the idea for insulin, he moved back to Toronto to develop it, as the University of Western did not have the facilities at the time to support his research. In our Medical Gallery at Banting House NHSC, we display a replica of the Nobel Prize won by Frederick Banting and J.J.R. Macleod. While Banting and Macleod were the two men recognized for the Nobel Prize, the team that developed insulin was in fact made up of four people. Charles Best and James Collip were also key players in the development of insulin at the University of Toronto.
When Banting returned to Toronto to start his research, he met with Dr. Macleod and explained his idea to him. He asked him for the facilities to carry out his research, ten dogs to test it on, and a research assistant. Macleod did not think it would work based on his lack of experience as a researcher, but allowed him to carry out the experiments expecting them to fail and prove Banting’s idea wrong.
He brought in one of his graduate students, Charles Best, who began working closely with Banting, and is generally remembered as the other half of the insulin discovery team. James Collip was brought into the project later, to refine the extract and make it safe for human use.
So who were the other members of this team of researchers? J.J.R. Macleod was a Scottish researcher who was seen as the leader in studying carbohydrates, and was chosen to be recognized for the Nobel Prize in part because the discovery of insulin was seen to be the culmination of his research. Banting was recognized because he came up with the idea and did the work developing it, while Best and Collip were not considered.
Charles Best is easily the most well remembered member of the team along with Dr. Banting. “Banting and Best” are often credited as the sole discoverers of insulin. Best began his work with Banting after reportedly winning the opportunity to become his assistant during a coin toss against Clark Noble. Banting personally felt that Best was more deserving of being awarded the Nobel Prize, and publicly gave him half of his winnings, urging Macleod to do the same with Collip. Charles Best continued on with medical research later in his life, and went on to complete doctorates in medicine and physiology.
James Collip was from Alberta, and is likely the least known of the four men. He was responsible for refining and purifying insulin so it was safe for human use, and rarely commented on the controversy over the Noble Prize, saying only that he was happy to be referenced in the discovery. Collip became the Dean of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario in 1974.
Despite the controversy that emerged over who won the Noble Prize, all four men should be remembered for the role they played in bringing insulin to the world.
This post was written by Heather Hepburn, Graduate Research Assistant at Banting House National Historic Site of Canada, and Public History student at the University of Western Ontario.