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'Breakthrough' chronicles race to discover a diabetes treatment and one girl's fight

Seven years ago, Arthur Ainsberg, retired from a successful Wall Street career, was thinking it'd be cool to write a book.

Sitting in his Manhattan apartment, he started reading a three-page story in the New York Times Magazine about Elizabeth Hughes, the daughter of politician and jurist Charles Evans Hughes.

In 1919, Elizabeth was an 11-year-old girl who had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, then considered a death sentence.

"By the time I finished that story," Ainsberg said, "I was in tears. First, because I knew I had my book, and second, because Elizabeth's story was my story."

Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle, which Ainsberg cowrote with Thea Cooper, was published Sept. 14. Ainsberg will appear at the Times Festival of Reading on Saturday to talk about the book, Elizabeth Hughes and the swirl of characters and events that led to the discovery of insulin.

"It's the story of people coming together and changing the world," Ainsberg said. "They're people who were very well known but who have been forgotten by history."

Barbaric and controversial treatment kept Elizabeth alive just long enough that insulin, which didn't even have a name until 1921, became available, making her disease manageable. She would grow up to marry and have children before her death in 1981.

Ainsberg saw himself in her story because he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in the 1970s, when it was considered fatal. He, too, survived long enough that treatments became available.

"I am now one of the longest-surviving Hodgkin's patients in the world," Ainsberg said in a phone interview from New York.

Breakthrough has many heroes, including doctors in the United States and Canada who simultaneously but independently homed in on the idea that a mysterious pancreatic secretion was the key to diabetes.

One of its most compelling heroes is Elizabeth herself. She was the child of privilege that few other Americans of her day could imagine. Her father had been a Supreme Court justice and a candidate for president. She was sent away from home for a radical treatment. To keep her blood sugar levels under control, she would be given just enough food to keep her from starving to death: a couple of forkfuls of broccoli or beans, boiled three times, some bran, an egg — about 400 calories a day for two years.

Even as her body shriveled and the pain of hunger racked her, Elizabeth stayed positive and even ebullient. She kept a scrapbook with pictures of food. She delighted in learning about birds and fought the institutional hierarchy until one of her friends, another patient, was allowed to adopt a pet canary. When her father was persuaded to run again for president, Elizabeth enthused about the possibility of living in the White House.

"She was a girl of indomitable spirit," Ainsberg said.

In the United States and Canada, doctors were trying to isolate the pancreatic secretion. One was Frederick Banting, a driven but troubled man with no idea how to relate to other human beings. Officials at the University of Toronto gave him a secluded room in an attic where he experimented on dogs. In 1923, he shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery with John J. R. Macleod — the man who gave him the room. Which man actually made the discovery? "It's one of the great enduring scientific mysteries," Ainsberg said.

Another hero is Eli Lilly and Co., which had employees working around the clock to make insulin commercially available in time to save Elizabeth Hughes and millions of other people with Type 1 diabetes.

"From the moment of its discovery until the moment it was available to the world was two years," Ainsberg said. "It's still the only treatment, although the delivery options have increased. It's now something people take for granted. One of the audiences I hope will read this book is children with diabetes, so they will know how lucky they are to be living in 2010 instead of 1910."

Marty Clear can be reached at

Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle

By Arthur Ainsberg and Thea Cooper, St. Martin's Press, 320 pages, $24.99

Meet the author

Arthur Ainsberg will be a featured author at the 2010 St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Ainsberg will speak at 11:30 a.m. in the USFSP Science and Technology Building, Room 113. Admission is free. For information, go to

'Breakthrough' chronicles race to discover a diabetes treatment and one girl's fight 10/20/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 5, 2010 12:41am]
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