Canadian professor gaining recognition for role in discovering insulin 100 years ago

With anniversary celebrations to mark insulin’s centenary approaching, there is movement in Alberta and Ontario to recognize James Collip’s role in the discovery.

James Collip played key part in developing treatment, but barely received credit

James Betram Collip, who worked at the University of Alberta from 1915 until 1928, played a key role in the discovery of insulin a century ago. (University of Alberta Archives)

In 1923, scientists Frederick Banting and John Macleod were jointly awarded a Nobel Prize — Canada's first — for discovering insulin.

Nearly 100 years later, a lesser-known member of their research team is gaining recognition for his role in one of Canada's biggest medical breakthroughs.

99 years ago this month, University of Alberta professor James Collip managed to purify a pancreatic extract so it could be used on humans. 

Back then, people with diabetes did not live for long, but thanks to insulin, millions of lives have been saved.

The discovery was a team effort, but Collip's contribution was crucial.

"Banting was the captain, but Collip was really the one who made the winning touchdown," Alison Li told CBC Edmonton's Radio Active on Tuesday.

Li is the author of the 2003 book, J.B. Collip and the Development of Medical Research in Canada.

Though Banting and his partner, Charles Best, became well-known names in Canada, Collip's reputation faded in the public consciousness, despite his productive career as a biochemist.

With insulin centenary celebrations approaching, there is movement in Alberta and Ontario to recognize Collip's role in the discovery.

Who was James Collip?

James Bertram Collip was born in Belleville, Ont., in 1892. 

According to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, he started attending the University of Toronto at 15 and earned his PhD in biochemistry from the school in 1916. Before even finishing his doctoral studies, he was offered a lecturer position at the University of Alberta, which he accepted.

In 1921, while on sabbatical, Collip started doing research with Macleod, who ran a lab at U of T.

Banting asked Macleod for Collip's help with his research. Weeks later, on Jan. 23, 1922, Collip purified insulin so it could be given to humans. The treatment was then used to help a 14-year-old patient with type 1 diabetes.

Lack of recognition

At the time, Albertans celebrated Collip's role in the insulin discovery.

The Gateway, a student newspaper, reported that after the discovery became known, "a great feeling of pride and pleasure spread across the campus," and the College of Physicians and Surgeons gave Collip $5,000 to use for research in diabetes treatment.

Another newspaper, the Edmonton Bulletin, reported that in 1923, a doctor's tribute to Collip in the Legislature "was heartily applauded by the entire house."

Macleod shared his Nobel Prize with Collip, but the Edmonton professor's name never became widely associated with the breakthrough.

As historian Michael Bliss described in his 1982 book, The Discovery of Insulin, U of A chancellor Charles Stuart was so frustrated by the lack of recognition that he wrote a strongly-worded letter to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, saying Collip's work was "being entirely and quite unfairly ignored by the Toronto people."

Geographic distance could be one reason Collip didn't receive much credit. The professor moved back to Edmonton at the end of 1922.

Li, who interviewed Collip's family members, colleagues and friends for her book, said he was a modest man who did not want to be mired in conflict over credit.

"He always told his colleagues that if one day, after he died, someone were to look into the original papers, they would see what his role had been," she said.

More recognition came after his death, when Bliss published his book. But to this day, Collip remains relatively unknown.

"Even in his hometown here, up until a couple of years ago, no one even knew him," said Richard Hughes, president of the Hastings County Historical Society in Ontario.

Hughes said efforts to honour one of Belleville's brightest residents began only during the last decade, at the urging of a local doctor, George Pearce.

History enthusiasts encouraged the City of Belleville to declare November 20th Dr. James B. Collip Day in 2012, and together with the Ontario Heritage Trust, installed a commemorative plaque in front of the Belleville Public Library in 2014.

A three-person committee is trying to raise $110,000 to build a larger Collip monument and courtyard in Belleville, and a city spokesperson confirmed construction is scheduled for this summer.
A rendering illustrates plans for a new courtyard and monument dedicated to James Collip in Belleville, Ont. (City of Belleville)

Li said there are also plans to honour Collip during an insulin centenary celebration at the U of A in June. She plans to speak at the event, if public health guidelines allow.

Legacy lives on at Western

Collip remained at the U of A until 1928, when McGill University recruited him to chair the school's biochemistry department. 

He made numerous important scientific contributions to hormone research in the decades that followed and finished his career as dean of medicine at the University of Western Ontario (now Western University).

Collip died in London, Ont., on June 19, 1965 at the age of 72.

His legacy continues to inspire Dr. Robert Hegele, a professor of medicine and biochemistry at Western who inherited his oak desk and sits at it when he seeks inspiration.

Dr. Robert Hegele looks after Dr. James Collip's desk, which resides in his office at Western University. A photograph of Collip is displayed on the desk behind him. (Submitted by Robert Hegele)

"I have known about him for more than 30 years now, but his name is still not known, even among my colleagues," said Hegele, who wrote about Collip in a recent article in the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology about insulin's centenary.

Hegele said each of the four men involved in discovering insulin "solved an important piece of the puzzle," but it was Collip who helped the team finish the last mile.

"He was clearly a very gifted and special person," he said.


Madeleine Cummings is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She covers local news for CBC Edmonton's web, radio and TV platforms. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca.