The Dog Behind Banting and Best: Marjorie, My Diabetes Heroine


It’s the last day of Diabetes Blog Week.  Thank you, Karen Graffeo, for making this happen.  I’ve enjoyed writing my posts and I’ve really enjoyed reading others.  Today’s topic is “diabetes hero.”  

The Discovery of Insulin, Banting and Best
Banting, right, and Best, left, with one of the diabetic dogs used in experiments with insulin. Credits: University of Toronto Archives

I’m on the edge of my seat as I type this post.  There’s no idiom intended in the preceding sentence.  I am actually sitting on the edge of my seat because my black cat is taking up most of the chair.  I could push her off, I know, but as uncomfortable as she’s making me, I like having her here nudging at my back with her velvety little nose.  My gray cat is on the desk, just to my right.  A few feet away my 120 pound dog is snoring.  

I have always been an animal lover.  I was born into a home with a dog named George.  As a young child, I dreamed of having a horse.  When I finally accepted that my father was never going to bring a pet horse into our three bedroom suburban home and let me ride it to school, my passion spilled over into the world of cats.  I was seven-years-old, in an exceedingly miserable family situation, and I wanted a cat.  I needed a cat.  I had a therapist at the time, and she understood this.  For my eighth birthday my father gave her permission to take me to a pet store to buy a cat.  I don’t recall what sort of selection of cats there was in the pet store.  I went straight for the cross-eyed white cat.  I named her Snow.

Despite her chronic diarrhea, Snow was a lovely cat.  Shortly after I got Snow my brother wanted a cat, too.  He got an orange tabby and we named him Ricky, after Ricky Schroder.  Ricky got diabetes and required insulin injections, but that story is for another post.  Today’s post is about the very first diabetic being to survive with insulin injections, Marjorie the dog.

I don’t know very much about Marjorie, only that she and other dogs were crucial in Frederick Banting’s and Charles Best’s experiments which led to the discovery of  insulin. And apparently, after having her pancreas removed, Marjorie lived for 70 days with insulin injections. I haven’t done a lot of research on this subject, partly because I just started to think about this yesterday, and partly because I don’t want to know too much about any animal suffering. 

Here is an excerpt from an article in Harvard Magazine that begins with Marjorie’s story:

“During the first week in the laboratory, Banting and his assistant, Charles Best, operated on 10 dogs; all 10 died. Finally, in 1921, after months of experimentation, Banting and his colleagues isolated a material that kept a depancreatized dog named Marjorie alive for about 70 days. Exactly what information was gained from using dogs, and how many dogs were absolutely needed, is not clear. Work previous to Banting and Best’s, some of it in humans, had indicated the presence and importance of a hormone involved in glucose transport. Many more experienced scientists in the diabetes-research community believed that Marjorie had never been fully depancreatized, and thus may have never been diabetic. More likely, they said, the dog died of infection caused by her pancreatectomy. It’s possible that even the death of the famous Marjorie was unnecessary for the great discovery.

But the two Toronto researchers had isolated insulin, providing the first step toward producing it from pig and cow pancreas, available in bulk from slaughterhouses. The result–that Banting and Best “saw insulin”–appears to have justified all sacrifices. What’s the life of a dog, 10 dogs, a hundred? Before Banting and Best operated on dogs, we had no insulin; afterwards, we did.”

I don’t mean to enter into a debate here about animal research.  I simply want to acknowledge Marjorie (or Alpha, as one site calls her) and all of the other dogs who were sacrificed in order to discover insulin.  
Sweet dogs, you are heroes and you have my endless gratitude.  Banting and Best got all of the credit, but you deserve a fair share, too.

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3 years ago

Reading this in 2018! Thank you for writing this as it is helping me for my speech topic for GCSE’s so THANK YOU!

6 years ago

can any one tell me a little info about marjorie for a school project

10 years ago

Oh, this is very well deserved. The dogs. They stole some of these dogs for their research. Dr. Banting became very attached to Majorie and I know he was sad when she died. Well, at least that is what is portrayed in the book Breahthrough. Based upon the story told there, I do believe Frederick would agree with you, Jessica. :) 

Laura G.
Laura G.
10 years ago

Jessica, thank you. This is beautiful. I am bitterly opposed to animal research, but I am alive because of it and grateful to be alive. Unreconcilable points of view…

The least we can do now is to know about these dogs and understand why they were sacrificed. 

Alain d.
Alain d.
4 years ago
Reply to  Laura G.

There is no remorse and no ambuiguity here ! Other times, other measures ! Back then, we didn’t know better. We cannot judge with our modern eyes !

Today, we know better –or we are supposed to– we can use other methods to test and/or at least treat these animals in a humane way !

10 years ago

This is a very educational post, I didn’t know about the dogs.

10 years ago

Thank you, Mike.  

Mike Hoskins
10 years ago

What an absolutely fabulous post! The unexpected hero, even though so obviouto and significant to all of us. Love it!

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