U of T’S Discovery of Insulin Collections Inscribed in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register

Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Photograph of Banting and Best with a dog on the roof of the Medical Building, University of Toronto.

TORONTO, ON – In recognition of their global significance, the University of Toronto Libraries’ Discovery of Insulin collections were inscribed today into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. The announcement was made jointly by the institution and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO which implements the program in Canada.

The collection includes original handwritten notes by the scientific team of Frederick Grant Banting, Charles Herbert Best, James Bertram Collip and John James Rickard Macleod concerning early experiments and the successful use of insulin at the University of Toronto   

“Inscription in the Memory of the World Register recognizes the global significance of these documents which will be preserved in perpetuity by the University of Toronto Libraries,” said Anne Dondertman, Associate Librarian for Special Collections at the University of Toronto Libraries. “While preserving the originals, our innovative work in the area of digitization ensures that collections such as these are made accessible to both the local and international communities.”

Created in 1997, the Memory of the World Register protects and promotes the world’s documentary heritage. To be included, collections must have global significance and outstanding universal value. The Discovery of Insulin collections document the world’s first medical discovery of major significance related to diabetes - one of the most significant medical discoveries of the twentieth century.

This life-changing discovery made an incredible impact on the diabetics of the world. Prior to the discovery of insulin, severe diabetics were treated primarily by means of a strict diet which inevitably led to starvation if not death from the disease. Children, in particular, suffered terribly. For example, when five-year-old Teddy Ryder arrived in Toronto for treatment, he weighed only 27 pounds. The following year he wrote to Dr. Banting from his home in Connecticut, informing him that, "I am a fat boy now and I feel fine.”

Letter to Dr. Banting, approximately 1923.

He lived for over 70 years on insulin. In private correspondence, accounts in the popular press, and even in scientific journals, the miraculous return to life and health of these patients once they received insulin was likened to a miracle.

Canadian submissions to the International Register are reviewed by a group of expert members of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO’s Ad Hoc Committee for Memory of the World. Once approved, the submissions are sent to the International Advisory Committee in Paris which decides on their inclusion in the Register. 

“This recognition by UNESCO illustrates how archival evidence is essential to reliable historical knowledge,” said Dr. Marcel Caya, Chair of the Canadian Ad Hoc Committee. “Beyond the celebration of the discovery of insulin by the team of Banting and Best, this inscription to the Memory of the World Register draws attention to the context of their scientific work and its impact on the lives of so many people worldwide. The Memory of the World program is founded on the fact that well preserved and accessible archives are an asset to society.”

The Discovery of Insulin collections, Canada’s fourth addition to the Register, include the research which won Dr. Banting and Dr. Macleod the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1923, as well as early patient letters and charts, photographs, awards, laboratory notebooks, reports, correspondence between doctors, researchers, the Eli Lilly company and the University of Toronto, and other records mainly from the 1920s. Together, they provide a full picture of the events and people involved in the discovery and development of insulin at the University of Toronto.

Over 7,000 pages of this documentation have been made publicly available by the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library through its Discovery and Early Development of Insulin digital collection, and the material can be viewed in person by the public at the University of Toronto Archives and the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

The University of Toronto Libraries system is the largest academic library in Canada and is ranked third among peer institutions in North America, behind just Harvard and Yale. The system consists of 44 libraries located on three university campuses. In addition to more than 12 million print volumes in 341 languages, the library system currently provides access to more than 238,000 serial titles, 1,500,000 electronic resources in various forms and over 28,000 linear metres of archival material.

The role of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO is to involve government departments and agencies, institutions, organizations and individuals working for the advancement of UNESCO’s mandated fields of education, science, culture, communication and information, in its activities.  

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For more information, please contact:

Anne Dondertman | Associate Librarian, Special Collections & Director, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library | University of Toronto Libraries | anne.dondertman@utoronto.ca | 416-978-5332

 

Pauline Dugré | Programme Officer, Communication & Information | Canadian Commission for UNESCO | pauline.dugre@unesco.ca | 1-800-263-5588, ext. 4558