Saturday, September 11, 2010

Starving to survive

Back in first and second grade (mid 70s) I had a good friend named Karl. Other than being shorter than most of us, he wasn't all that different except in one unusual way: he avoided eating sweets. Candy, cookies, cake... all the stuff kids love he generally avoided. We didn't understand and felt pretty bad for him, and would ask "Are you sure you can't have any?" I even remember his mom coming in and talking to the class in 2nd grade and explaining that Karl had something called "diabetes," which basically meant his body couldn't process sugar normally. We watched a film about it, and - other than not being able to eat as many goodies as the rest of us - it didn't seem like that big of a deal. Had he been born about 50 years earlier, though, it could very well have been a death sentence.

Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical MiracleElizabeth Hughes was the eleven year-old daughter of a prominent and popular American politician when she was diagnosed as a diabetic in 1919. There was no cure and few survived more than a year. The only treatment was a carefully monitored starvation developed by Dr. Frederick Allen. By decreasing the caloric intake to control blood-glucose levels, he managed to keep his patients alive longer in the belief that a cure was imminent, although some actually died from starvation.  Elizabeth's weight eventually dropped below 50 lbs, and many wondered if the treatment wasn’t worse than the disease.

In Toronto, the volatile Dr. Frederick Banting, an army surgeon during WWI, had had an inspiration while researching the disease on behalf of a friend who had recently been diagnosed. Although not a researcher, and having questionable medical skills beyond amputation, he convinced Dr. J. J. R. Macleod of the University of Toroto to fund the research which led to the refinement of insulin from animal pancreases.

Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg is an exciting and compelling read - I couldn't put it down at times. It doesn't just read like a novel, though; it sounds like a movie. The authors have written with plenty of cinematic flourishes that bring the story to life in a way that I could see it in my mind (and the way it's told, this is a story that could easily be made into a movie). Unfortunately, for me that was also the greatest negative. The book (which I received from Amazon Vine) is filled with invented dialog and situations where emotions and thoughts are described. I found myself frequently turning to the notes in the back to see if there was any justification for such vivid descriptions - entries in someone's journal, etc. - but found nothing. Those who don't read history as often or who enjoy historical fiction will probably not be annoyed at this, however, and with the scarcity of information (most of the principal figures in this drama won’t even be found on Wikipedia) perhaps necessitates such liberties. In spite of that, it's a pretty fascinating story.

1 comment:

  1. That sounds like an interesting book! I'll have to read it.

    Found you on the Blog Hop! I am now a follower, and I have listed you on my blog's "Literary Criticism and Reviews" blogroll (on the left sidebar)!