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

Our story began with a casual glance at an article in The New York Times Magazine in March 2003. It led to a consuming research project that would take us to medial centers, universities, libraries, archives, and other sites of significance located in twenty-five cities, eight states and four countries over the course of five years.

Initially, our research focused on Elizabeth Hughes, but we 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 discoveries. At a certain point, our biggest challenge became choosing which of the many engaging characters and stories to focus on.

Eventually we decided to focus on four primary characters: Elizabeth Hughes Gossett, Frederick Grant Banting, Frederick Madison Allen and George Henry Alexander Clowes. It was particularly difficult to relegate the captivating personality of Charles Evens Hughes to a second tier of importance. The remarkable J.K. Lilly, Sr., along with his sons Eli Lilly, Jr. and J.K. Lilly, Jr. also introduced tangential story lines that were hard to resist.

The two geographic hubs of our research corresponded to the two primary locations of the development of insulin: Toronto, Canada and Indianapolis, Indiana. We went to great lengths to physically place ourselves in the rooms and on the roads in which the primary characters lived and traveled nearly ninety years ago.

Indispensable to our research—among many other University archives and historical sites—was the archive at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto and the Eli Lilly and Company corporate archive in Indianapolis. These archives gave us access to primary documents and objects related to our story.

 At Thomas Fisher we found a wealth of material including Elizabeth’s daily dietary  and insulin record, written in her own hand, Bantings diaries and even the jarred pancreas of Leonard Thompson. The Eli Lilly archive yielded internal correspondence between Clowes and the Lilly family, as well as other important documents and paraphernalia.

Several books were critical to our research: The Discovery of Insulin and Banting: A Biography, by Michael Bliss, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Toronto; Charles Evans Hughes, by Merlo Pusey; The Autobiographical Notes of Charles Evans Hughes  edited by David Danelski and Joseph Tulchin; Sir Frederick Banting  by Dr. Lloyd Stevenson; Starvation (Allen) Treatment of Diabetes by Lewis Webb Hill, MD and Rena Eckman; Elliott P. Joslin, MD: A Centennial Portrait, by Donald M. Barnett, MD; and the privately published commemorative volumes issued by Eli Lilly on the occasion of the anniversary celebrations.

Out of our years of research came several emotionally arresting and powerful moments that we will never forget. One such moment was standing at the Hughes’s family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and seeing the graves of Elizabeth’s entire family – her grandparents, parents and siblings – and finding Elizabeth’s own grave missing.  The eerie absence of her grave sent chills up our spines.

An exhilarating moment came at the University of Toronto. Our research seemed to indicate that Charles Evans Hughes had intervened on behalf of Banting after the patent office rejected Banting’s application to patent insulin – but we couldn’t prove it.  We searched high and low for evidence to prove our theory.  We sat side-by-side at a long oak table, digging through boxes and boxes of papers. And then suddenly we found it:  a letter written by CEH to the patent office urging them to reconsider Banting’s application.

Working on Breakthrough was an incredible experience for both of us.  We lived with these characters for years, dug through the artifacts of their lives and were profoundly impacted by the incredible journey of researching and writing this book.