Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle

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Overview

It is 1919 and Elizabeth Hughes, the eleven-year-old daughter of America's most-distinguished jurist and politician, Charles Evans Hughes, has been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. It is essentially a death sentence. The only accepted form of treatment ? starvation ? whittles her down to forty-five pounds skin and bones. Miles away, Canadian researchers Frederick Banting and Charles Best manage to identify and purify insulin from animal pancreases ? a miracle soon marred by scientific jealousy, intense business ...

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Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle

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Overview

It is 1919 and Elizabeth Hughes, the eleven-year-old daughter of America's most-distinguished jurist and politician, Charles Evans Hughes, has been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. It is essentially a death sentence. The only accepted form of treatment – starvation – whittles her down to forty-five pounds skin and bones. Miles away, Canadian researchers Frederick Banting and Charles Best manage to identify and purify insulin from animal pancreases – a miracle soon marred by scientific jealousy, intense business competition and fistfights. In a race against time and a ravaging disease, Elizabeth becomes one of the first diabetics to receive insulin injections – all while its discoverers and a little known pharmaceutical company struggle to make it available to the rest of the world.

Relive the heartwarming true story of the discovery of insulin as it’s never been told before. Written with authentic detail and suspense, and featuring walk-ons by William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Eli Lilly himself, among many others.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Her father was a former Justice of the Supreme Court, a former New York governor, and a former Secretary of State, but 11-year-old Elizabeth Hughes was still dying. Weighing only forty-five pound, little Liz was fading fast, a victim of juvenile diabetes, an invariably fatal malady at the time. Coming to the rescue are Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and Charles Best, the discoverers of insulin and the heroes of this new book. Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg's Breakthrough chronicles a medical advance that every parent can now take as granted. A dramatic and heart-gripping story.
Publishers Weekly
It was one of the 20th century's medical miracles, and with this retelling of the discovery of insulin (10 months after Caroline Cox's The Fight to Survive: A Young Girl, Diabetes, and the Discovery of Insulin) it's a gripping narrative as well. In 1918, the youngest daughter of former New York governor and future Supreme Court chief justice Charles Evans Hughes was diagnosed with diabetes. At the time, a near-deadly starvation diet was the best hope for sufferers, but four years later, a "pancreatic extract" was showing promise in treating symptoms in animals. Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Hughes was among the first wave of patients to benefit from the marriage of dogged research and commercial enterprise on the part of Lilly & Co. to manufacture the drug. Author and playwright Cooper and finance-veteran-turned-author Ainsberg bolster the account with impressive sourcing. They also pay particular attention to the complexities of the human drama--the indomitable Elizabeth; her visionary parents; the quarrelsome, "crazy," and eventual Nobel Prize-winning researchers; and the bold commercial pioneers. And it's those details that make this extraordinary chapter of medical history so memorable. B&w photo insert. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
"The twentieth century witnessed many medical miracles, but perhaps none was so transformative as the discovery of insulin for the treatment for diabetes. Breakthrough is the fascinating tale of Nobel prize-winning research, of a young girl who should have died as a child but instead lived to see seven grandchildren, and of a drug that turned a death sentence into something more akin to a chronic nuisance. This book is an important read for anyone with diabetes. It is an enjoyable read for those who love mystery and human drama."—Kenneth T. Jackson, Barzun Professor of History, Columbia University 
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312648701
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 9/14/2010
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,347,872
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

THEA COOPER is an author, playwright, editor and teacher. ARTHUR AINSBERG is an author and financial industry veteran whose successful battle with Hodgkin's disease sparked his interest in medical history.

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Read an Excerpt

ONE

 

Christ Church Cranbrook, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, 1981

 

On Tuesday, April 28, 1981, Mourners began to Converge on the wet streets around Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Emerging from their late model cars, they tucked under umbrellas and made their way through the raw spring air toward the carillon bells ringing from the tower. Inside the sanctuary, organ music soared from the south wall of the nave, drawing the eye upward to the intricately carved wood, stone, and brilliant stained glass. As the mourners were ushered into pews, they nodded solemnly to one another; most everyone knew each other. They were gathered to acknowledge the passing of and pay tribute to the remarkable life of a seventy-four-year-old woman who had died three days before. Her name was Elizabeth Hughes Gossett.

Although most of the mourners would likely claim to have known Elizabeth well, only a few people in the church knew just how remarkable her life really was. Dr. Lowell Eklund, dean of continuing education at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, rose to the pulpit to deliver the eulogy. He mentioned Elizabeth’s “intellect, wisdom, quiet yet irresistible leadership.” He mentioned her distinguished service as a trustee of her alma mater, Barnard College, in New York City. He said that she, like her father, America’s most famous lawyer, jurist, and politician, had been a lifelong advocate of self-directed scholarship and perpetual inquiry. It was this spirit, he said, that had led her to play an important role in the founding of Oakland University in 1957.

Did Eklund know that the circumstances of her early life had forced her to pursue her education as a self-directed and largely solitary endeavor? If he knew, he didn’t say.

As heiress to the legacy of a great American statesman, she carried forth her father’s ideals with “modesty, dignity and grace,” he said. Dr. Eklund described her as “a champion of civil rights in speech, in document and in action.” He went on to say that she had cofounded, with her friend Chief Justice Warren Burger, the Supreme Court Historical Society in 1974. But did Eklund know why this daughter was especially compelled to protect her father’s legacy, of how the great man had risked everything for her sake?

Sitting in the front pew with his smooth, clean hands folded in his lap was William T. Gossett, to whom Elizabeth had been married for fifty years, a former member of the church vestry. Around him were seated their three children, Antoinette, William, and Elizabeth, and next to them were their spouses, Basil, Mary, and Fred, respectively. Also seated in front were the eight grandchildren, the eldest of whom was David Wemyss Denning, son of Antoinette and Basil. In 1981 he was a twenty-four-year-old medical student. Dappled light, steeped in the rich jewel tones of the towering east window, played over the heads of the family like the lightest touch from an invisible hand.

David knew that Eklund would not mention what to his mind was one of the most important and remarkable facts of his grandmother’s life. This fact had also been omitted from his grandmother’s obituaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and the leading Michigan papers. In 1922, Elizabeth Hughes was among the first children to receive an experimental pancreatic extract called insulin. By the time of her death, she had received some 42,000 insulin injections over fifty-eight years, probably more than anyone on earth at that time. And yet, through Elizabeth Gossett’s own steadfast efforts only a few people knew this, and those few were sworn to secrecy.

How ironic to hear Eklund describe Elizabeth as a lover of history; it was a perfect alibi for someone who had made a lifework of obfuscating her own history. This effort had been so successful that Dr. Eklund had no knowledge of the brave, bright spirit whose childhood had been tempered in the crucible of death’s daily and intimate companionship.

The last will and testament of Elizabeth Hughes Gossett arranged for the disposition of her jewelry, personal effects, and works of art. After the will was executed, there remained in her estate an odd collection of cryptic relics, like a muddle of jigsaw puzzle pieces from different puzzles:

 

Thirty or so letters tied with a satin ribbon. The letters had been written by Elizabeth during 1921 and 1922, mostly to her mother (“Mumsey”), when Elizabeth was fourteen and fifteen years old. The letters had been written from New York State, Bermuda, and Toronto, marking points on her peripatetic attempt to evade the death that pursued her relentlessly.

A small, hand-knitted sweater of fine, faded blue wool, which looked to be made for a child eight or nine years old.

An old photograph of a modest house in Glens Falls, New York, showing a rocking chair on the front porch. On the back of the image were the words, Save one life and save the world, written in indigo ink in an elegant hand.

A square of canvas removed from its frame, bearing a rough oil painting of a farm house rendered in pigments of burnt umber and cobalt.

A small brown glass medicinal vial with an age-yellowed label on which the words had faded to illegibility.

 

These mute artifacts were all that remained of Elizabeth Hughes’s life before her miraculous transformation into an entirely different girl. What follows is the improbable story of that Elizabeth—the Elizabeth that Elizabeth erased. This is the story of Elizabeth Hughes, who “vanished” in December of 1922 without a memorial service or a funeral, without anyone ever really even noticing.

 

Excerpted from Breakthrough by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg.

Copyright © 2010 by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg.

Published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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Reading Group Guide

It is 1919 and Elizabeth Hughes, the eleven-year-old daughter of America's most-distinguished jurist and politician, Charles Evans Hughes, has been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. It is essentially a death sentence. The only accepted form of treatment – starvation – whittles her down to forty-five pounds skin and bones. Miles away, Canadian researchers Frederick Banting and Charles Best manage to identify and purify insulin from animal pancreases – a miracle soon marred by scientific jealousy, intense business competition and fistfights. In a race against time and a ravaging disease, Elizabeth becomes one of the first diabetics to receive insulin injections – all while its discoverers and a little known pharmaceutical company struggle to make it available to the rest of the world.

Relive the heartwarming true story of the discovery of insulin as it’s never been told before. Written with authentic detail and suspense, and featuring walk-ons by William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Eli Lilly himself, among many others.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

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( 14 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 15, 2010

    Excellent!

    Breakthrough tells an engrossing and important story in a clear and entertaining manner. Both the scientific endeavors -- as a team of scientists protective of their own reputations struggled to find a way to control a killer disease -- and the personal stories -- as young children struggled through near starvation to survive, and as parents struggled through emotional pain to keep their dying children alive -- are thrillingly described. I highly recommend it!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2011

    Highly recommend!

    I enjoyed this book but I thought it would be more about Elizabeth Hughes. It was very interesting and since I have diabetes it was meaningful to me. I never realized what extremes they had to go through to find insulin and what a wonderful answer it was to such a deadly disease before they found insulin.

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