History remembers Elizabeth Hughes as one of the first people ever to be treated with insulin back in the 1920s — a landmark time when the discovery of this magic liquid suddenly meant that a diagnosis was no longer a guaranteed death sentence.
But long after those early days when she first received insulin as a girl, she grew up and became Elizabeth Hughes Gossett. She was largely lost to history due to her own conscious efforts to keep private; she didn’t want even basic details of her diabetes to be known outside of her immediate family and medical care team.
As fate would have it, life led her to Southeast Michigan, actually to my local area of Metro Detroit, where she settled in to an existence that now has almost eerie historic connections for me personally.
All of this came to light recently with banter (not Banting) about a new film under production that will tell the story of Elizabeth Hughes and the discovery of insulin. The film is at least a year out from completion, but we’ve learned that by focusing on Elizabeth and the researchers at work, it takes an interesting POV on this breakthrough that so many have chronicled in print and film already.
Please follow our journey of discovery on this…
Two filmmakers based in England are piecing the story together in a fresh way.
The film is called Unspeakably Wonderful, a name that actually came from a phrase used in a letter that young Elizabeth Hughes wrote to her mother about the early insulin treatments she received. She was 11 years old when diagnosed in 1919, and became one of the first ever to receive insulin from Dr. Fredrick Banting in 1922. Her father was Charles Evans Hughes, who served in many high-ranking roles including as New York governor, Secretary of State and a justice on the Supreme Court of the United States. Elizabeth is the film’s main character, tying together the story about the researchers.
The screenplay apparently took 18 months to write, and the two men behind the production are British doctor Matthew Lockyer, who’s focused on diabetes care during his career, and British playwright and poet Neil Fleming. Neither have a personal connection to type 1, but they are clearly fascinated with the story behind this medical miracle from the 20s.
Now that may sound dull to some — researchers in a lab doing chemistry and trying to create a new type of medical treatment for an incurable disease… that’s what playwright Fleming apparently thought at first. But when studying the script and learning more about insulin’s origins, his mind changed.
Here’s their pitch:
“The story is fundamentally dramatic – it is both a race against time, and a parable about friendship, animosity, human imperfection, chance, and the nature of human endeavor. Basically, too few people with diabetes actually know the true story of how insulin was discovered. While many have vague recollections of the names Dr. Frederick Banting and Dr. Charles Best in Toronto, who were the main two researchers who made the discovery, they don’t know the full story that also includes Drs. Collip and MacLeod, or all the drama that reportedly happened between the four scientists leading up to and after the discovery.”
Unspeakably Wonderful has its own website and a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter is currently underway through late July. That campaign’s aimed at paying fees for a casting director, and that will then hopefully lead to actor commitments and eventual movie partners, they say. The producers are also in talks seeking support from many groups inside and outside of the D-Community, including Beyond Type 1 here in the U.S.
Their hope is to find those actors and partners by September, and eventually create and release the documentary by October 2017, according to the crowdfunding site.
“For the story of insulin’s discovery is fascinating, dramatic and carries important lessons for us today about the nature of science and research. It’s also a story worth telling in the interests of raising global awareness of the challenge that diabetes poses,” Fleming and Lockyer write.
A noble goal, for sure — even if the story has been told before, from documentaries and historical accounts to the 1988 film Glory For All that also had a dramatic take on the events.
As an adult, Elizabeth married William T. Gossett, who in the late 1950s became general counsel for Ford Motor Company and lived locally in the suburbs here in SE Michigan. All the way until her death from pneumonia/heart failure in 1981 at the age of 73 (totaling an estimated 42,000 insulin shots before her death), she spoke little about her diabetes.
Learning all of this trivia got me extremely curious about the local connections… so a few days ago, I decided to go exploring.
Thanks to some resources I’ve used in my personal genealogy research, I managed to track down the exact address where Elizabeth and her husband William lived from the 1960s. Believe it or not, I took a trip to that house, knocked on the door and had a fascinating conversation with the owners — who weren’t aware of Elizabeth’s past occupancy, but agreed to let me snap some photos.
It’s also noteworthy that Elizabeth’s husband William returned to private practice after serving as the Ford attorney, and was named partner at the Detroit law firm of Plunkett Cooney Gossett — while his name has since been dropped, the history remains. Turns out the county office location is actually a mile from where he and Elizabeth lived, nestled into that Cranbrook Institute of Arts community spread out in that area near a breathtaking Christian cathedral at the neighborhood’s entrance. There is even a small plaque for the Gossetts in the church’s memorial gardens, not far from where the couple raised their family.
Personally, I’m fascinated to see how these connections come full circle, as she lived in Oakland County, Michigan, and was a huge philanthropist, heavily involved in many charitable causes. One of those included being a founding board member of Oakland University in 1957, the place that four decades later I ultimately choose to attend college! Word is that a portrait photo of Elizabeth’s father (Charles Evan Hughes) remains in the OU library basement, but I’ve not yet had the chance to go exploring there and find out for myself…
Not to mention the fact that the same endocrinologist that Elizabeth once saw as an adult, turned out to be my mom’s endo for a number of years more recently.
That endo is none other than Detroit’s Dr. Fred Whitehouse, whom we interviewed back in 2012. He’s someone we consider to be “an endo for the ages” based on his many years of history in the diabetes care field. Dr. Whitehouse had a younger brother with type 1, and later he actually practiced with and did hospital rounds with the legendary Dr. Elliott Joslin of the original Joslin Clinic in Boston! And yes, aside from all that rich experience and being a key part of the influential Diabetes Control and Complications Trial (DCCT) in the 80s that led to the hemoglobin A1C test, Dr. Whitehouse also treated our historical patient at one point — the grown up Elizabeth Hughes Gossett.
We reached out to Dr. Whitehouse, who is now 90 years old and mostly retired, but still manages to travel to diabetes conferences and even help out on diabetes clinical research at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. About Elizabeth, he told us:
“She was a pleasant lady, answered questions appropriately. There was no reason to change any management schedule that she used at home. We did not speak of her interesting past history nor was she forthcoming in any particular detail. She was in my opinion perfectly comfortable in her self-care and I saw no reason to advise any change. She was grateful for my advice and my contact with her. In my opinion she was urbane, polite and helpful. I imagine she inherited many of her personal traits from her father and was not a person (patient) who wished to dwell on the state of her diabetes. At the time that she visited, many patients with diabetes did not wish to ‘wear their diabetes on their shirt-sleeves.’ My guess would be that most of her friends and acquaintances never knew she had diabetes and had such a remarkable past history.”
Dr. Whitehouse said his conversations with Elizabeth made it clear she did not want to be defined by her health condition, that she wanted to succeed and have her actions judged on the merits. Whitehouse also recalls observing at one point after Elizabeth’s death, when confidential letters were published post-mortem by her family, that she had felt her attitude toward any PDD (public display of diabetes) was in part due to her feeling a sense of “survivor’s guilt” that she was fortunate enough to receive early insulin treatment when so many other children were not.
We also asked him for his thoughts on the Unspeakably Wonderful film trailer, given his physician-patient relationship with Mrs. Gossett. Here’s what he tells us:
“I found the music and background heavy. It made the English accents a bit difficult to understand. I know (Dr.) Elliott Joslin always emphasized having insulin to treat his patients, but he never got involved with the interaction of the four — Banting, Best, MacLeod and Collip.”
As to the drama shown around the researchers’ relationships, Dr. Whitehouse says: “I would consider the comments regarding Banting and MacLeod/Banting and Collip, to be unsubstantiated. It has been said that Bating gave half of his Nobel money to Best, and MacLeod did the same with Collip following the example of Banting. There is much hearsay in these interactions.”
Right. While there is a lot out there in the public domain about the discovery of insulin itself, much of the detail about the individuals involved has been lost to history… But maybe trying to rediscover and recreate that human side is just what’s needed to reignite interest in the insulin-creation story that has saved countless lives.