A short history of insulin


The history of insulin starts in 1889. At a congress in Heidelberg, the then 31-year old Oskar Minkowski reported on the results of experiments he and von Mering performed with dogs. They did pancreatectomies in dogs in order to study their digestion. However, one of their lab assistants noted an unexpected side-effect: the dogs started to suffer from polyuria. Well-aware that this was a symptom of diabetes in humans, Minkowski tested their urine for glucose and demonstrated that the dogs had indeed become diabetic. In subsequent experiments he ligated the ductus pancreaticus, performed subtotal pancreatectomies, and performed pancreas transplants, all of which led to the conclusion that the pancreas had to produce a hormone that was released in the blood and that influenced glucose levels.

In the years after Minkowski's initial report, researchers across the world tried to isolate this elusive pancreatic hormone. However, suppletion of patients with all kinds of pancreatic extracts failed to produce the wanted results.

Banting and Best

banting and best Banting, right, and Best, left, with one of the diabetic dogs used in experiments with insulin.
Credits: University of Toronto Archives

It was only in 1921 that Frederick Banting and Charles Best, who worked under Collip and John Macleod in Toronto, succeeded in extracting the pancreatic hormone.
The hormone was given the name insulin (at the suggestion of Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer) to mark the fact that it was produced in the pancreatic islets. The first patient treated was a 14-year old boy named Leonard Thompson who was in diabetic coma and made a remarkable recovery. In 1923 Banting and MacLeod received the Nobel Prize for their discovery and Banting was named Time's 'Man of the year'.


  • 29.1 million US children and adults (9.3% of the population) have diabetes. This is a rise from 25.8 million (8.5%) in 2011.
  • Researchers from the Jefferson School of Population Health (Philadelphia, PA) published a study which estimates that by 2025 there could be 53.1 million people with diabetes.
  • 21 million people have been diagnosed with diabetes (a rise from 18.8 million in 2011).
  • About 8.1 million people with diabetes have not been diagnosed (a rise from 7 million in 2011). This equates to 27.8% of people with  diabetes currently being undiagnosed.


  • About 86 million Americans aged 20 years or older have prediabetes. 1.7 million people aged 20 years or more were newly diagnosed with diabetes in 2012.
  • 208,000 (0.25%) people younger than 20 years have diabetes.
  • Approximately 1 in every 400 kids and teenagers has diabetes.
  • 12.3% of people aged 20+ years have diabetes; a total of 28.9 million individuals.
  • 25.9% of people aged 65+ years have diabetes; a total of 11.2 million people.
  • 13.6% of men have diabetes; a total of 15.5 million people (a rise from 11.8% in 2010).
  • 11.2% of women have diabetes; a total of 13.4 million people (a rise from 10.8 in 2010).