Let's celebrate Dr. Banting
Years ago, I was riveted to a movie or a quasi-documentary, Glory Enough for All, playing on Public Television in the United States. This was likely in early 1990s and soon after the movie was released in 1988; the Internet was not commonplace. The movie told the story of the discovery of insulin and Dr. Frederick Banting’s role in it. The storyline was as gripping as a suspense novel.
Few movies have had similar impact on me as did this one - I sat arrested in my place, soaking in the experience for long minutes afterwards. The conclusion of Gandhi, and of Water (a part of Deepa Mehta’s trilogy comprising also of Earth and Fire) also had me transfixed in movie halls. When the lights came on, I wanted to be left alone with my thoughts.
If you ask any high school student to list a few famous inventors and discoverers, Alexander Graham Bell would be included as the inventor of the telephone, Thomas Edison for the light bulb and electricity, Henry Ford for the assembly line for cars, and Thomas Newcomen and James Watt for the steam engine. Among discoverers, Jonas Salk would merit mention for the polio vaccine, Louis Pasteur for pasteurization, Alexander Fleming for penicillin, and James Watson and Francis Crick for the DNA structure.
This recognition of the star inventors and discoverers is as it should be. We understand of course that while certain names get attached to certain accomplishments, the contributions of a host of others are precursors and enablers, and also deserving of credit alongside the famous names.
It has always struck me that in this pantheon, Dr. Fred Banting is less famous worldwide than he should be, and especially in India. In a nation where diabetes exists in epic proportions, where almost every other adult appears to have “a little sugar problem,” as a colleague euphemistically and furtively once described it, Dr. Banting should be a household name, and his contributions should be routinely taught in high schools. This is not the case.
Soon after watching the movie, I wanted to buy it for my personal collection. It could serve as a case study in a class on discovery and innovation; to highlight the social context of research; to show the commitment and passion involved in pursuing a solution. But I could not buy it. Once the internet spread, I tried locating the movie on YouTube. For the longest time, no luck. I even called the Canadian embassy, for it was produced by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and they did not know of how I could get hold of it. I gave up.
Then sometime in 2011, Glory Enough for All appeared on YouTube in many small fragments. I was delighted. I identified the lady who posted it, and wrote her a thank you note for publishing it. On November 16, 2016, on what would be Dr. Banting’s 125th birthday, Google created a doodle in his honor, and said:
“In 1923, Banting was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work in insulin treatment, which had quickly become the standard. This was thanks in part to him releasing the rights for pharmaceutical companies to manufacture insulin royalty-free. In fact, Banting was offered $1 million and royalties for his formula—but turned it down and chose to never profit from his research.”
“Make in India,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature effort, should extend to the manufacture of insulin, in all its variants, including generic ones, by multiple manufacturers in India. The medication, while available, is far too expensive and in the hundreds of rupees and not tens of rupees, even after nearly a hundred years since its discovery.
The next time PM Modi meets with the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, insulin and Dr. Banting should be on the agenda. Maybe, Canada and India should together promote and celebrate International Insulin Day on November 16.
Not merely save lives, Dr. Banting and his co-discoverers have extended the quality of life for millions of people around the world, and continue to do so.
Mahesh P. Bhave was until December 2016 a visiting professor, strategy, at IIM Kozhikode, India. He lives in San Diego.