Exhibit Dramatizes Insulin Discovery
Since the hormone insulin was first isolated in Toronto and produced in Indianapolis, I wondered why the New-York Historical Society chose to feature an exhibit called “Breakthrough: The Dramatic Discovery of Insulin.” There’s a scant connection: An exhibit is devoted to Elizabeth Hughes, one of the earliest and most famous insulin patients; she was the daughter of Charles Evans Hughes, the onetime secretary of state, New York governor, and supreme court justice. Still, why should we quibble about local relevance? The show is expertly researched and handsomely presented. It is relevant to our times, and we can be proud that it’s here.
Combining graphics, easy-to-read text, artifacts and illustrations, it offers a clear explanation for novices to this subject: what diabetes is, how deadly it was, and who made it less so. Those with more experience (diabetics, or those with diabetic friends or family) will be mesmerized by the historical objects in the show: letters, research notes. There is a telegram telling Dr. Frederick Banting, one of the co-discoverers of insulin, that he and his colleague had won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Also riveting are objects such as syringes, ampoules, and early kits to test sugar in urine and blood.
The new book “Breakthrough” by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg, which inspired this show, offers readable explanations. But the exhibits divulging personal stories bring the insulin story to life. Pages from a doctor’s registry before the discovery of insulin lists patients’ names, dates of diagnosis, and dates of death; post-discovery, the death rates change drastically. My favorite exhibit shows a letter from Teddy Ryder, an early insulin patient. Scrawled in pencil and clumsy capital letters, he tells Dr. Banting: “I’m a fat boy now and I feel fine. I can climb a tree.” Photos adjacent juxtapose a skinny, sickly Ryder in 1922 with a plump, smiling one a year later and 23 pounds heavier.
Text reminds the viewer that insulin transformed diabetes from a fatal disease to a chronic one. The show emphasizes that insulin is not a cure; it’s a treatment, and diabetics are sick. You’ll also learn that in the 90 years since insulin was discovered, no further advances have been made, and, more depressingly, diabetes rates have remained steady or rising worldwide. #
The exhibit is displayed through January 31, 2011 at the New-York Historical Society, located at 2 West 77th Street. For more information, call (212) 873-3400, or visit http://www.nyhistory.org