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A century ago, Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and John Macleod were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the pancreatic hormone insulin — a treatment that has helped save millions of lives of people suffering from diabetes.
But the 1923 prize was controversial in that it left off the other co-discoverers of insulin: Washington County native Charles Best, who with biochemist James Collip, Banting and Macleod comprised the full team that first isolated the hormone.
Best, the only American on the team, was not included in the nomination for the prize, with only Macleod and Banting receiving the honors. Despite their indispensable contributions, Best and Collip were graduate students at the time, who are often left off Nobel Prizes even if the discovery in question would not have happened without them.
Best was born in the Washington County town of Pembroke in 1899, about halfway between Calais and Machias. His father, Nova Scotia-born Herbert Best, was a country doctor in rural Washington County, and his mother, Luella, was a trained soprano and pianist, who regularly performed in churches and at events in eastern Maine. Pembroke was once a bustling center of shipbuilding, but by the 1890s its primary industry was sardine packing.
As a teenager, Best watched his favorite aunt, Anna, suffer and eventually die from complications due to diabetes. That fact, and that his father was a physician, led him to pursue a career in medicine after graduating from high school in Pembroke early in 1915. He left for Canada the following year to attend medical school at the University of Toronto.
Best briefly joined the Canadian army in 1918 at the end of World War I, though he never saw combat, and returned to the University of Toronto, finishing his medical degree in 1921. Best entered graduate school in May of that year under the physiologist John Macleod, who paired him with Dr. Frederick Banting, who was researching the pancreas. James Collip joined the team as well.
According to the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, by 1920, the only effective means of treating diabetes was to put patients on an extremely low-calorie, no-carbohydrate diet, which left people with little energy and effectively slowly starved them. But that was about to change.
After presenting a paper in December 1921 showing how a newly discovered pancreatic extract lowered blood sugar in dogs, Best and Collip began developing a method to create a more potent, pure version of the extract, soon to be called insulin. According to the University of Toronto, by May 1922, Best and his team had partnered with drugmaker Eli Lilly to begin mass-producing insulin, which quickly revolutionized the way doctors treat diabetes.
In October 1923, Best was lecturing at Harvard University when his lecture was interrupted by a colleague at Harvard, who read aloud a telegram announcing that Banting and Macleod — and not Best and Collip — were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery.
There had been tension on the team since the beginning, with Banting alleging that Macleod was attempting to steal credit for a discovery he’d made with his two students. Banting and Best fell on one side of the argument, with Macleod and Collip on the other. Banting told Best he would share half his Nobel Prize money with him, while Macleod did the same for Collip.
Best graduated from the University of Toronto medical school in 1925 at the top of his class, already with an incredibly important accomplishment under his belt. After a stint in England, he returned to Toronto in 1928 as the college’s head of physiology — Macleod’s position, who recommended Best for the job after the two reconciled.
Best went on to be a part of another major scientific discovery — the development in the 1930s of a non-toxic version of heparin, a blood anticoagulant that made open-heart surgery and organ transplants possible. Best was nominated for a Nobel Prize for that discovery in 1950, though he did not win.
After Best received countless accolades and honorary degrees in Canada, the U.S. and the rest of the world, in 1973 the Nobel Committee officially conceded that it had made an error in omitting Best from the 1923 award.
Best retired in 1965, but maintained an active schedule as an advisor to the World Health Organization, and lectured at universities and hospitals around the world. He also regularly spent summers in Pembroke, visiting old friends and relatives. He died in 1978.
Now, Best’s childhood home in Pembroke is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But his legacy lives on in the tens of millions of lives saved by the incredible discovery he and his colleagues made 100 years ago — even if never got a Nobel Prize for it.