Two tons of pig parts: Making insulin in the 1920s

To kick off National Diabetes Month, pharmacy curator Diane Wendt shares how the Smithsonian has covered the history of insulin manufacturing.

I recently picked up a copy of Diabetes Forecast (The American Diabetes Association's healthy living magazine) featuring Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on the cover. In her autobiography My Beloved World published earlier this year, Sotomayor recounts her experience living with diabetes since being diagnosed with Type 1 at the age of seven. The stories of successful and celebrated people like Sotomayor are inspirational for all of us, but especially meaningful to the millions of Americans also affected by diabetes.

 

These vials of insulin come from an insulin sales kit made by Eli Lilly & Company in the 1940s (pictured below). The numbers labeling the vials indicate a four-step progression as the insulin is manufactured into its final product.
These vials of insulin come from an insulin sales kit made by Eli Lilly & Company in the 1940s (pictured below). The numbers labeling the vials indicate a four-step progression as the insulin is manufactured into its final product.

But what really caught my curatorial eye was the magazine's article about making insulin, because that happens to be the subject of a small display that opened last week at the museum called The Birth of Biotech. Both the magazine article and our display focus on the extraordinary technology developed in the late 1970s by which living microorganisms are genetically modified with a human gene in order to produce insulin for our use.

Since the discovery of insulin in 1921-1922 by a team of Canadian researchers, making insulin for the treatment of diabetes has always depended on living organisms. However, before the advent of biotechnology, the organisms used were the pigs and cows destined for our dinner plates—specifically, their pancreas glands, a waste product of the meatpacking industry. According to the article in Diabetes Forecast, more than two tons of pig parts were needed to extract just eight ounces of purified insulin. Lucky for us, both pork- and beef-derived insulin are nearly identical to human insulin and can be utilized by our bodies to convert the carbohydrates we eat into energy.

 

On the left, pancreas glands are examined as they arrive from the meatpacking house. On the right, the glands are run through grinders before the next step in the process, insulin extraction.
On the left, pancreas glands are examined as they arrive from the meatpacking house. On the right, the glands are run through grinders before the next step in the process, insulin extraction.

In the early 1920s, Smithsonian curator of Medicine Charles Whitebread took a keen interest in the new medicine. He contacted Eli Lilly, the Indianapolis, Indiana, drug firm and only licensed producer of insulin, to request their help in creating a small exhibition on the making of insulin. The result was a series of photographs and specimens illustrating the steps of manufacture from raw glands to finished packaged product.

 

A bottle of 1920s Iletin (Lilly insulin), which is the finished product seen below being labeled and packaged
A bottle of 1920s Iletin (Lilly insulin), which is the finished product seen below being labeled and packaged

 

On the left, the final product is separated by filtration. On the right, the finished product is labeled and packaged at Eli Lilly.
On the left, the final product is separated by filtration. On the right, the finished product is labeled and packaged at Eli Lilly.

 

The crude process of extracting insulin from piles of animal glands may bother our sensibilities today, but we have also largely forgotten that diabetes used to be a virtual death sentence; insulin dramatically restored life to children on the brink of starvation because of this disease.

 

The four vials pictured above come from this Eli Lilly insulin sales kit, which includes insulin throughout the production process as well as in its final form. The fifth vial, according to the label, is the final, "very highly purified colorless solution" that has been obtained from the fourth vial.
The four vials pictured above come from this Eli Lilly insulin sales kit, which includes insulin throughout the production process as well as in its final form. The fifth vial, according to the label, is the final, "very highly purified colorless solution" that has been obtained from the fourth vial.

This kit, along with many other objects, can be seen in detail in our Insulin and Diabetes Management object groupThe Birth of Biotech exhibit case is on display at the museum now through April 2014.

Learn about producing insulin from genetically modified bacteria online in our Recombinant DNA and the Birth of Biotech object group, and see more photos of insulin and diabetes management objects in our Flickr set. Diane Wendt is an associate curator in the Division of Medicine and Science. She has previously blogged about the rabies and influenza vaccines. 

The Birth of Biotech case and the digitization of the museum's biotechnology collections are made possible through the generous support of Genentech, Inc.

Posted at 5:00 am EDT