Two interesting reports on the mystery of chronic fatigue syndrome. Could the cause of an outbreak in upstate New York be found by analyzing spinal fluid proteins?
Ernest McCulloch, who was part of the scientific duo that first identified a stem cell, died Jan. 20 at the age of 84. The New York Times‘s obit was full of amusing personal details (his nickname was Bun) while The Washington Post’s obit (whose link is m.i.a.) did a nice job conveying the eureka moment of his discovery.
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I happened to be in Manhattan earlier this week and caught the last day of the New-York Historical Society exhibit “Breakthrough: The Dramatic Story of the Discovery of Insulin.” My favorite part was the black-and-white silent movie showing the early insulin-manufacturing process, in which refrigerator carloads of fetal calf pancreases are ground up, pressed, filtered, and purified to produce the life-saving extract. Before 1921, the glands had been a waste product in stockyards around the country. After Eli Lilly and Company began buying them up from meat-packing houses, this offal became a precious commodity overnight; ten thousand pounds of pancreases were needed to make one pound of insulin crystals. (It wasn’t until the 1960s that the first synthetic insulin was produced. Today, most insulin used is biosynthetic recombinant “human” insulin.)
Many of these historical images appear in the recently published Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle (St. Martin’s Press) by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg. Their account of this fascinating story is fluidly written and loaded with complex characters and details of a bygone era. They focus on four primary researchers and Hughes, who was the daughter of a prominent politician and the first American to receive insulin treatment for juvenile diabetes. Even though we know the outcome before we even pick up the book, the back story of this hinge point in medical history is compelling reading.
But the book will never have the clout of historian Michael Bliss’s award-winning The Discovery of Insulin, which was just reissued in a 25th anniversary edition (and to which Ainsberg and Cooper are indebted). That’s because Breakthrough is part history and part historical fiction. The authors even cop to fabrications in their preface, admitting that some dialog, incidents, and even a character “have been invented or augmented for narrative purposes.”
Here’s a great grassroots solution to an ecological problem: urban beekeepers. In an encouraging story, the New York Times reports that several municipalities have recently made it legal to keep bee hives within city limits. When I toured the White House garden a couple months ago, I was delighted to see that Michelle Obama has a hive tucked away there –even though DC has some contradictory laws on the books that have forced other local city apiarists to operate clandestine hives.