Sunday, February 27, 2011

Charles Best

Charles Herbert Best was born on February 27, 1899 in West Pembroke, Maine. He was the only son of Luella Fisher and Dr. Herbert Best, who were Canadians from Nova Scotia. His father was a country doctor and restless with his country practice moved twice during Best's youth. Best went through public and high school in Pembroke, Maine. After a year at Harbord Collegiate, making up studies in French and Canadian history, he entered the University of Toronto in 1916. He joined the Canadian Army in 1918, after first being rejected because of a heart murmur. He was discharged in 1919, having not seen combat, and returned to the University of Toronto.

In 1921 Best, having just completed a bachelors with honors in physiology and biochemistry was assigned, along with his friend Clark Noble, to work as an assistant to Frederick Banting who wanted to conduct an experiment that involved blocking the pancreatic ducts of dogs. Blocking the pancreatic duct, through which pancreatic, digestive juices drain into the small intestine, has the effect of destroying most of the pancreas, leaving only the cells of the islets of Langerhans, specialized cells within the pancreas. Banting wanted to isolate these cells in order to look for a hormone that would relieve diabetes. Diabetes is a disease caused by the lack of the hormone insulin. Insulin causes cells to uptake sugar out of the blood stream, and without it blood glucose levels can rise to dangerous levels which cause damage.

Banting was only given limited laboratory space and could only accommodate one of his assistants, and there is an apocryphal story about Best and Noble flipping a coin to determine who would be Banting's assistant. Best assisted Banting in operating on dogs to remove their pancreata and then treating them with extracts they had obtained from isolated islet of Langerhans cells, which they called "Isletin". They had a great deal of trouble because their laboratory space, during the hot summer, was not very clean and many of the dogs died of infection. It was not until August that they were able to lower the blood sugar of a experimental dog with injections of isletin, whereas injections of liver and spleen extracts had no affect. By December, 1921 Banting and Best were able to obtain purified insulin by extracting beef pancreas with acidic alcohol. In 1923 Banting and John Macleod, who had arranged for the laboratory space, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine "for the discovery of insulin". Best was not included because he had not yet finished his doctorate. Banting was upset by Best's exclusion from the prize and shared his prize money with him.

Best succeeded Macleod as professor of physiology at the University of Toronto in 1929 and during World War II he was involved with a program that obtained and used dried human serum. During his later years he served as an advisor for the medical research program of the World Health Organization. Honors awarded to Best include election to the Royal Society in Britian and the Royal Society of Canada, as well as 18 honorary degrees from universities around the world.

Best died on March 31, 1978.


Best, Henry B. M.; Margaret and Charley: The Personal Story of Dr. Charles Best, the Co-Discoverer of Insulin; Dundurn Press Ltd.; 2003

Charles Herbert Best Wikipedia Entry

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rene Dubos

Rene Jules Debos was born on February 20, 1901 in Saint-Brice-sous-Foret, a villiage north of Paris, France. He spent his youth in the village of Henonville, a village of about 450 on the border of Ile-de-France and Picardy. His father, Georges Alexandre Dubos, was a butcher and his parents ran butcher shops in both villages. When he was eight years old he suffered from rheumatic fever, which left him with a damaged heart. His reading of the novels of Jules Verne sparked his interest in science.

He attended high school and the National Institute of Agronomy in Paris, and then briefly served in the French Army, until he was discharged due to his heart condition. He emigrated to America in 1924 and in 1927 he obtained his doctorate from Rutgers University. He was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1938. Aside from the years 1942 through 1944 when he was a professor of tropical medicine at Harvard University, he spent his in entire scientific career at Rockefeller University.

Dubos' research dealt with microbiology and looking for products of soil bacteria that prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria. This research culminated in the isolation of Bacillus brevis a soil bacteria that produces a substance he named tyrothricin which contains two substances he named gramicidin and tyrocidine. These antibiotics prevent protein synthesis in gram-positive bacterial, killing them. They have no effect on gram-negative bacterial. This was the first time an antibiotic was isolated from a microorganism. This discovery stimulated Howard Florey and Ernst Chain to research Alexander Flemming's penicillin and Selman Waksmen, Dubos' former teacher, to research what would be streptomycin.

In his later years Dubos wrote several books exploring the interplay of environmental forces on the physical, mental, and spiritual development of mankind and he is responsible for coining the phrase "think globally, act locally". The author of over twenty books, he won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1969 for his book "So Human an Animal". His other honors include election to the National Academy of Science in 1941, the Trudeau Medal from the National Tuberculosis Association in 1951 and he was awarded more than 20 honorary degrees.

He died, on his 81st birthday, February 20, 1982.


Montgomerey, Paul L.; "Rene Dubos, Scientist and Writer, Dead"; New York Times; February 21, 1982

"The Life of Rene Dubos: Choosing to be Human" from an exibition at the Rita an Frits Markus Library at

Rene Dubos Wikipedia Entry

Sunday, February 13, 2011

C. T. R. Wilson

Charles Thompson Rees Wilson was born of February 14, 1869 in Glencorse a parish near Edinburgh, Scotland. His father was a sheep farmer who died in 1873, when Wilson was 4. His mother moved the family to Manchester, where with the help of an older brother from his father's previous marriage he was educated at a private school and then Owen's College, which is now the University of Manchester. At Owen's college he studied biology, making a study of beetles and hoping to become a medical student. Though he failed a scholarship test for Christ College, Cambridge he was awarded a scholarship at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge where he became interested in the physical sciences, studying chemistry and physics.

In 1894 he was studying cloud formations at Ben Nevis, an observatory on the highest point in Scotland and he observed the coronas, the rings of color that form around the sun when it shines through clouds, and "glories", colored rings surrounding shadows cast upon clouds. Interested in this phenomena, he returned to Sidney Sussex and attempted to reproduce them in the laboratory, by rapidly expanding moist, dust free air. As the air expands the temperature drops and when it reaches the dew point the water vapor in the air condenses. Wilson noticed that water droplets formed in the air and he suspected that this was caused by water condensating on ionic nuclei. This prediction was verified when Wilson's "cloud chamber" was exposed to the newly discovered x-rays. The massive increase in water droplets after x-ray exposure coincided with the observation that air was made conductive by x-rays, which produced ions in the air.

This was the birth of the cloud chamber, a device which allows for the photographic recording of the paths of ionizing, nuclear particles. When ionizing nuclear particles fly through the air they colide with air molecules, producing ions. These ions can be observed in the cloud chamber because of the water that condenses on them. The water droplets form paths that can be observed and photographed. Cloud chambers have been used to record a number of nuclear phenomena. Wilson used his cloud chamber and in 1911 was the first person to observe and record the paths of alpha and beta particles and electrons.

For his invention of the cloud chamber Wilson shared the 1927 Nobel Prize in physics with Aurthur Compton. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1900. Other honors received by Wilson include the Copley Medal in 1935 and the Franklin Medal in 1929. After his retirement he moved to Edinburgh and then moved to the village of Carclops, close to this birthplace.

He died, surrounded by his family, on November 15, 1959.


"Profile: C.T.R. Wilson" The New Scientist; (1959)5:348-349

C.T.R. Wilson Nobel Biography

Charles Thompson Rees Wilson Wikipedia Entry

Monday, February 7, 2011

William P. Murphy

William Parry Murphy was born on February 6, 1892 in Stoughton, Wisconsin. His father, Thomas Francis Murphy, was a congregational minister with pastorates in Wisconsin and Oregon. Murphy was educated in public schools in Oregon and Wisconsin and the University of Oregon where he took an A.B. degree in 1914. He spent the next two years as a teacher in the public schools in Oregon teaching physics and mathematics. After the short stint teaching he decided to attend medical school. He started in medical school at the University of Oregon medical school in Portland, where he also acted as a laboratory assistant in the department of anatomy, for one year. He then attended a summer seminar at the Rush Medical School in Chicago. He was then awarded the William Stanislaus Murphy Fellowship to Harvard University Medical School, which he retained for three years, graduating with his M.D. in 1922.

He spent two years as a house officer at the Rhode Island hospital and then he was assistant resident physician at the Peter Brent Brigham Hospital. He held this position for 18 months and then was appointed Junior Associate in Medicine. In 1924 he was appointed Assistant in Medicine at Harvard University and from 1928 to 1935 he was was Instructor in Medicine there. From 1935 to 1958 he was Lecturer in Medicine and in 1958 was made Senior Associate. He was Emeritus Lecturer thereafter.

From 1923 his research dealt with diabetes mellitus and blood diseases. It is his work on pernicious anemia (a form of the disease characterized by a lower than normal amount of red blood cells) that he is remembered for. In 1924, working with George Minot, he bled dogs to make them anemic. He then fed them various substances to see if any would help with the dogs anemia. He found that a diet of liver relieved the anemia. Later he was able to isolate vitamin B12 as the agent that relieved the anemia.

Pernicious anemia is a form of anemia characterized by the inhibition of DNA synthesis in red blood cell progenitors, that results in the formation of large, fragile, megoblastic erythrocytes. The cause of the disease can be a dietary insufficiency of vitamin B12 or an autoimmune reaction against intrinsic factor, a protein secreted by parietal cells of the stomach mucosa. Intrinsic factor is responsible for the absorption of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 cannot be synthesized by the body and thus must be absorbed from the diet and normally the body stores 3 to 5 years worth of the vitamin in the liver. When the absorption process is blocked by an autoimmune reaction against intrinsic factor or the parietal cells pernicious anemia results. If the body cannot absorb B12 trough normal means the disease can be cured by intravenous injection of the vitamin otherwise oral B12 can be used.

For their work discovering the cure for pernicious anemia Murphy and Minot were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1934, sharing it with George H. Whipple who first suggested raw liver as a treatment for pernicious anemia. Murphy was also awarded the Order of White by the country of Finland, the Cameron Prize from the faculty of the University of Edinburgh and the Gold Medal from the Massachusetts Humane Society.

He died on October 9, 1987.


Spicoll; "William P. Murphy: Condon's Other Nobel Prize Winner"; on the Pauling Blog,

William P. Murphy Nobel Biography

William P. Murphy Wikipedia Entry