Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review: Breakthrough

Book: Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg
Challenge Prompt: Read a book that will make you smarter
Pages: 247 (not including almost 50 pages of endnotes, sources, and acknowledgements)

Some of you may know that I was diagnosed about 18 months ago with Type 1 Diabetes.  As such, I was very interested in reading about how insulin was isolated and developed for human use.  I was particularly struck by the fact that in 1922, when insulin was first used in treatment of diabetics, T1D sufferers were given a prognosis of about a year of survival, and then a coma and death.  Their only hope was to wait for a cure (that no one was really sure was coming) and perhaps try Dr. Allen's starvation treatment to buy time.  That was it.

T1Ds often talk about how insulin isn't a cure; it's just a treatment to keep you alive until they find a cure.  And I cannot tell you how often I wish that my life was "normal" - that I wouldn't have to count carbs and do finger sticks four plus times a day and jab myself with all sorts of needles and tubes.  But when I read Breakthrough, I realized how lucky I am that I have those options - that this disease that took the lives of so many is just an inconvenience and annoyance to me.  Indeed, one of the comments on the back cover of Breakthrough says (emphasis mine):
"The twentieth century witnessed many medical miracles, but perhaps none was so transformative as the discovery of insulin for the treatment of diabetes.  Breakthrough is the fascinating take of Nobel Prize-winning research, of a young girl who should have died as a child but instead lived to see seven grandchildren, and of a drug that turned a death sentence into something more akin to a chronic nuisance." - Kenneth T. Jackson, Barzun Professor of History, Columbia University
 As a T1D, I literally owe my life to Dr. Frederick Banting, Charley Best, J.J.R. MacLeod, and Bert Collip (for the sake of time and space and my readers' interest, I will not go into the debate about who deserves credit for the discovery of insulin).  This doesn't even mention the countless scientists who paved the way before them.  The story was pretty ugly at times, for instance, when the team tore itself apart because of their competing egos, jealousies, and petty rivalries.  But it was still a fascinating read, between the race to extract and refine insulin to a usable level and the stories of the children waiting for a cure.

In some ways, Breakthrough was two different stories - the story of the discovery of insulin, and the story of Elizabeth Hughes.  I enjoyed reading both, but I realize there are many who thought that the book could do without one or the other.  It didn't bother me that much; I think the authors blended the two enough that it wasn't too jarring to switch from one story to the other.

Many other readers of this book also had problems with fictional conversations between historical characters.  I understand that criticism as well, but it didn't bother me.  I chose to look it as the way things could have gone, rather than the way they did go.

Final Recommendation: Yes, read it, if you're interested in reading a medical drama about a literal life-saving drug.  As someone who benefited from the discovery of insulin, I found the story fascinating and had a special appreciation for it.

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