Breakthrough: the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg

Arthur Ainsberg was inspired to write BREAKTHROUGH after reading an article in the Sunday New York Times in 2003.  The article gave a broad outline of the discovery of insulin, focusing on Elizabeth Hughes and her struggle to survive against extraordinary odds. As she was succumbing to her fate from an incurable disease, a miracle occurred—the discovery of insulin—and Elizabeth lived.

Elizabeth’s story mirrors Arthur’s own life experience.  In 1975, at the age of 28, he was stricken with a disease that had been, for thousands of years, incurable: Hodgkin’s Disease. At the time of his diagnosis, doctors at Stanford University Medical Center had developed a mode of treatment, involving both chemotherapy and radiotherapy, that was curing Hodgkin’s Disease patients. Arthur was lucky enough to be one of these patients who was cured. As in Elizabeth’s case with diabetes, there were no support groups for Hodgkin’s survivors in 1975. The parallels between Elizabeth’s and Arthur’s paths from sickness to health are remarkable.

Arthur shared the New York Times article with Thea Cooper, a friend and writer.  It was a conversation that would change both of their lives.  As they delved into the story of how insulin was discovered, they were certain that this was a story they simply had to tell. Together, they embarked on an exploratory research effort that would ultimately take them to medical centers, universities, libraries, archives, and other sites of significance located in twenty-five cities and towns in eight states and four countries over the course of five years.

Initially, their research focused on Elizabeth Hughes, but they soon discovered that she was the nucleus of a constellation of characters, each of whom was as fascinating and enigmatic as Elizabeth herself.  The discovery of these new characters led inexorably to more research and more findings.  At a certain point their biggest challenge became choosing which of the many engaging characters and stories to focus on.

The two geographic hubs of their research corresponded to the two primary locations of the development of insulin:  Toronto, Canada and Indianapolis, Indiana. Arthur and Thea went to great lengths to physically place themselves in the locales in which the primary characters lived and traveled nearly ninety years ago.

The proliferation of diabetes in today’s world is a great concern. There are 23.6 million people in the United States, or 7.8% of the population, who have diabetes, and 5 to 10 % have Type 1 diabetes, meaning that they are completely dependent on insulin to stay alive.  In fact, nearly everyone who picks up BREAKTHROUGH will have some personal connection to the disease.