It’s been 100 years since Insulin was discovered. It was a remarkable scientific achievement — one that changed the lives of diabetes patients forever. They say, success has many fathers, failure is an orphan. Many men claimed credit for the discovery of insulin. Four of these require special mention
- Georg Zuelzer — from Germany
- Nicolae Paulescu -from Romania
- Ernest Scott -from Columbia University
- Banting and Best — it is interesting that Best was just a student and Banting an orthopedic surgeon !
Of these Paulescu is of special interest — for he might have been the one of the few men in endocrinology to be ‘cancelled’. Nicolae Paulescu , was Romanian, but trained under Prof Etienne Lancereaux, first in Paris and then in Sorbonne. Perhaps reflecting this, he documented his scientific work in French. When he was 31, he returned to Bucharest.
By that time, Romania had come under German occupation and Paulescu had to be content with ‘enforced retirement’. He made good use of the time and studied the effects of pancreatic extract in pancreatectomized rats. After the initial success, he did seven elegant experiments and showed the effect of pancreatic extract on urea, ketones and glucose — both in diabetic and non diabetic animals. He shared his excitement with Banting in a letter — but Banting never replied. Undeterred, he wrote a patent application to Romanian government, calling the extract “pancrein”.
Paulescu’s experiments were great, but he had a deep character flaw. He was viciously anti Semitic, a trait that put him in the same side as the Nazis. He was notorious for his rants about the “Jewish peril” .
His scientific work was forgotten eventually — until Romanian diabetes academy named a lecture after him in the 18th Congress of International Diabetes Federation in Paris in 2003.
Le Monde published about his anti Semitism which led to an uproar. The lecture never happened. IDF decided that Paulescu would never be honoured.
Romanian scientists thought his science should be separated from his political views. Some said that anti Semitism was common in those days and Paulescu was merely a prisoner of Zeigeist. However he wasn’t just a prisoner of circumstances or time — he was an active creator of chaos. He used his scientific background to give a medical sheen to anti Semitism and emboldened a fascist group in Romania called “Garda der Fer”.
The Romanian government issued a stamp featuring Paulescu, which reads “Discoverer of Insulin”. The International Diabetes Federation however, refused to even name a lecture after him.
Whatever our beliefs about science -politics separation, it is important to realize that some red lines cannot be crossed. One of them is being, supporting or enabling a Nazi. He may be acknowledged, but not honored. Some stains can’t be washed away.
All those who get cancelled are not victims.