July 27, 2010

Cutting edge

Today in 1794 was the coup of thermidor – not an attack of lobsters, but the fall of Robespierre.

Maximilian Robespierre

Robespierre was the prime mover in the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution, one of a handful of people responsible for the execution without trial of nearly 2,000 people by guillotine.  When Robespierre recalled two of his satellite security people after public opinion turned against the bloodbath, it seemed he had a tiger by the tail.  They worked diligently against him and finally he himself faced the guillotine.  Literally.  He was beheaded face up. Yuk.

Thermidor was one of the 12 months of the new Republican calendar.  In an effort to get rid of all of the distasteful aspects of the old monarchy and heady with the radical ideas of the Enlightenment, the ruling elite decreed a new legal system, new weights and measures and a new calendar. Many of the laws remain and the new measures became the metric system.

But the calendar, rational as it was, never caught on and Napoleon ordered everybody back to the Gregorian.  Au revoir to Vendemiare, Brumaire, Frimaire, Nivose, Pluviose, Ventose, Germinal, Floreal, Prairial, Messidor, Thermidor and Fructidor.  I think we should take another look at Floreal – it’s a nice name for May.

* * *

Frederick Banting and his lab assistant Charles Best isolated insulin on this day in 1923 and changed the lives of millions of people.

Frederick Banting

Research had gone on since 1869 in various places by various people after Berlin medical student Paul Langerhans first observed clusters of tissue in the pancreas that came to be called the isles of Langerhans.  They were the source of insulin, the name of which comes from the German word ‘insel,’ which means island.

But it was Banting, at the University of Toronto, and Best who carried the research into clinical trials.  Initially ineffective, they worked to purify the substance to eliminate allergic reactions and ultimately got a version that was essentially pure.  Here is an excerpt  – which cannot be bettered – from Wikipedia describing the first test at Toronto General Hospital:

“Children dying from diabetic keto-acidosis were kept in large wards, often with 50 or more patients in a ward, mostly comatose. Grieving family members were often in attendance, awaiting the (until then, inevitable) death.

“In one of medicine’s more dramatic moments Banting, Best, and [biochemist James] Collip went from bed to bed, injecting an entire ward with the new purified extract. Before they had reached the last dying child, the first few were awakening from their coma, to the joyous exclamations of their families.”

Banting received the Nobel Prize for medicine the next year.  The patent on insulin was sold to the University of Toronto for one dollar.



  1. WOW – this is interesting!! lobsters…hehe


    Comment by ninachat — July 27, 2010 @ 11:40 am | Reply

  2. great writing and reporting thank you


    Comment by avery zia — August 3, 2010 @ 8:55 pm | Reply

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