The year is 1934, and in a laboratory hidden in the basement of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, a young woman peers at the clear crystals handed to her by the Waynflete Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University. The crystals are made of the peptide hormone insulin, which has been familiar to endocrinologists since 1921. But its intricate structure is still a mystery.
Its importance, however, was known even before insulin was actually discovered – the name ‘insulin’ was first used by the British physiologist Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer in 1916, for a hypothetical molecule produced by the pancreatic islets that controls glucose metabolism.
Insulin stopped being hypothetical in 1921, when the Canadian physiologists Frederick Banting and Charles Herbert Best, working in the laboratory of J.J.R. Macleod, isolated insulin from a dog’s pancreas.
On a cold January just a few months later, Leonard Thompson, a 14 year old boy with diabetes, became the first person ever to receive an injection of insulin. Despite a serious allergic reaction, the insulin treatment worked, with usually high levels of blood and urine sugars seen in diabetes dropping to normal – Leonard lived for another 13 years.
“Before the discovery of insulin, there really wasn’t much you could do for people who had diabetes’, said Katharine Owen, Associate Professor of Diabetes and diabetes consultant physician. “It really was a terrible diagnosis.”
100 years after the discovery of insulin made diabetes a treatable illness, it continues to be an active subject of study for scientists, including at Oxford. Endocrine research at the University has long roots, and it was here, in 1934, that the Nobel prize-winning physiologist Dorothy Hodgkin took the first X-ray crystallography photos of an insulin crystal, in her basement laboratory at the Museum of Natural History.