Celebrating a Lifesaving Breakthrough
In 2021, the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine celebrated the centennial anniversary of the discovery of insulin by publishing a commemorative digital magazine.
Insulin—the hormone that regulates how our bodies absorb glucose—was discovered at the U of T laboratories in the summer of 1921 by researchers Frederick Banting and Charles Best. To kick off celebrations to honor that discovery, U of T created a special digital edition of UofTMed magazine that illustrated the breadth of diabetes-related research taking place at the university.
“We knew the university would be celebrating throughout 2021 so we wanted to get a jump on that and talk about the concept of the ripple effect from that discovery,” says publisher Linda Quattrin.
Quattrin said her advancement colleagues credit the digital magazine as a valuable tool in engaging Danish insulin manufacturer Novo Nordisk, which ultimately donated $20 million to establish a healthy populations research network at U of T.
The story lineup included a look at one of the first children to receive insulin, the ripple effect of the discovery for up-and-coming researchers who got seed funding from the Banting Research Foundation, and an examination of the clinical outlook for diabetics today, including how close we might be to a cure.
“Thinking about the number of people who have been impacted by the discovery itself—it’s one of the seminal life-changing treatments that have changed the trajectory for people living with diabetes—the human impact is staggering,” Quattrin says. “Prior to the discovery of insulin, diabetes was a death sentence. It was a terrible, terrible death for children with Type 1 diabetes. Tapping into that history and historic artifacts really brings that to life.”
The history of the discovery of insulin is well-documented. There are multiple biographies of Banting and U of T has a collection of his materials in its library. The task for Quattrin and her team, then, was finding new angles for centennial coverage.
“I’d say the biggest challenge was coming up with fresh ideas, fresh angles, and really anchoring this discovery as foundational to U of T. [We wanted to] also be mindful that our hospital partners were very important in the broader development of insulin,” Quattrin said. “There was important clinical work done at Toronto General Hospital and at the Hospital for Sick Children to test and refine insulin as a viable treatment.”
On an institutional level, the 1921 discovery of insulin was a catalyst for the medical school to become a research-intensive institution. In 2020-2021, Temerty Medicine-affiliated scientists held more than CAD$910 million in research funding.
“The number of post-doctoral students, trainees, and funding that came out of some of those early investments have had a really profound impact,” said Quattrin. “It’s essentially an alumni society of researchers who came out of that tradition that Banting and Best established here in Toronto.”
The commemorative digital-only publication—created via remote collaboration amidst the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic—provided an excellent opportunity for engagement, said Quattrin. The issue, which won a Gold Circle of Excellence Award for Magazines—Special Editions, drew an open rate of 27%, more than 8,000 pageviews, and many social media shares, both of the project as a whole and of individual stories.
That underscores the discovery’s importance and legacy.
“It really helped underscore U of T’s reputation as an anchor for important health innovations like insulin,” says Quattrin.
About the author(s)
Holly Leber Simmons is a writer and editor based in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.
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