OTD: U of T doctors win Nobel Prize for Medicine for insulin discovery

On today’s date in 1923, University of Toronto doctors Frederick Banting and John Macleod jointly won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery of insulin, which has since saved the lives of millions of diabetics.

They were the first Canadians to win a Nobel Prize. Two years earlier, in 1921, Banting and Macleod collaborated with Charles Best and James Collip to isolate and purify insulin, offering a life-saving treatment to people whose lives would have previously been cut short by diabetes. Banting split his half of the Nobel Prize money with Best while Macleod did the same with Collip.

In 1998, the Royal Canadian Mint celebrated the discovery by featuring Banting on a $100 14-karat Proof gold coin. The coin, which was designed by Robert-Ralph Carmichael, depicts the Flame of Hope, an eternal flame kindled in 1989. It will be extinguished only when a cure for diabetes is developed.

Although insulin is not a cure for diabetes, its miraculous arrival in the early 1920s is considered one of the biggest discoveries in medicine.

On July 13, the Royal Canadian Mint marked the 100th anniversary of insulin’s discovery on both coloured (shown) and uncoloured $2 circulation coins.

More recently, this July, the Royal Canadian Mint issued a new $2 circulation coin celebrating Canadian researchers’ groundbreaking medical achievements a century ago.

Ontario artist Jesse Koreck designed the reverse of the 2021 $2 commemorative circulation coin. A focal point of the design is a monomer, a building block of the insulin molecule. Also displayed are scientific instruments used in the early formulation of insulin (vial, mortar and pestle, and Erlenmeyer flask) overlaid on a maple leaf, as well as red blood cells, glucose plus insulin molecules. The words “INSULIN/ INSULINE” appear on the coin’s outer ring, as do the double dates “1921” and “2021,” highlighting the anniversary.

This July, the Mint also issued a $200 pure gold coin featuring a large-scale version of the $2 circulation coin’s reverse design.

The laboratory instruments represent the “tools of the trade” of the four researchers behind the discovery and application of insulin for human use:

  • Banting developed the theory that a pancreatic substance could be extracted as a possible treatment for diabetes and led the research;
  • Macleod provided a laboratory and equipment at the University of Toronto and assigned Best as a lab assistant; and
  • Collip, a biochemist, purified insulin extracts for use as an effective diabetes treatment.

This July, the Mint also issued a $200 pure gold coin featuring a large-scale version of the circulation coin’s reverse design.

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