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Scientists in Germany and Hungary had come very close to finding pure insulin, but lack of funding and the devastation of World War I halted their progress.
The youngest son of Methodist farmers from Alliston, Ontario, Banting almost entered the Methodist ministry but decided at the last moment that his calling lay in medicine.
World War I shortened his five-year medical course at the University of Toronto: his class did its entire fifth year during the summer of 1916 and, upon receiving their hasty degrees, went off to war.
He and Best began this experiment, only to find that it was difficult to keep duct-ligated, depancreatized dogs alive long enough to carry out any tests.
After a summer of many setbacks and failures, however, the team reported in the fall that they were keeping a severely diabetic dog alive with injections of an extract made from duct-ligated pancreas and prepared, following Macleod’s instructions, in saline.
After 15 years at Western, Macleod accepted a professorship at the University of Toronto, where he conducted research on respiration.
Earlier in his career Macleod had published a series of papers on glycosuria, or the presence of sugar in the urine (a common indication of diabetes).These cells looked to Langerhans like tiny clusters of cells, or islands, floating among the acini.In 1901 Eugene Opie, an American pathologist at Johns Hopkins University, made the association between the degeneration of these cells, which had been named the “islets of Langerhans,” and the onset of diabetes.Duct ligation served to atrophy the acini cells that produced the digestive secretions, leaving behind only the cells of the islets of Langerhans.Duct-ligated dogs, it was discovered, did not develop diabetes.Banting and his assistant, Charles Herbert Best (1899–1978), began their experiments in May 1921.Best, the American son of Canadian parents, had just finished his bachelor’s degree in physiology and biochemistry at the University of Toronto and had been hired as a research assistant to Macleod, his former teacher.Unfortunately, his earnings from his practice were meager, forcing him to take a position as a demonstrator in the local medical school.It was in this capacity that Banting was preparing a lecture about the function of the pancreas on October 30, 1920.As a scientist familiar with the literature on the subject, he was unimpressed with Banting’s range of knowledge about diabetes and the pancreas and skeptical about the soundness of Banting’s idea.However, Macleod decided to give him lab space, an assistant, and some laboratory dogs for two months at the end of the academic year.