In response to:
Understanding Diabetes—and Paying for It from the October 6, 2022 issue
To the Editors:
In the otherwise clear and informative review “Understanding Diabetes—and Paying for It” by Jerome Groopman [NYR, October 6], which appropriately also addresses social and economic issues, there is a very strange and glaring omission. No mention is made of the determination of the amino acid sequence of insulin by Frederick Sanger and collaborators, carried out between 1945 and the early Fifties.
This work, which involved strikingly novel methodologies, is not only fundamental for the history of diabetes, but for the onset of molecular biology. It was the first time that the whole amino acid sequence of a protein was elucidated. The Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Sanger in 1958, “for his work on the structure of proteins, especially that of insulin.” In the awarding speech, Arne Tiselius, of the Nobel Committee, stressed the general importance of the work.
The prize for physiology or medicine was awarded that year to three other founding fathers of molecular biology (G.W. Beadle, E.L. Tatum, and J. Lederberg), the physics prize to three USSR scientists (I.M. Frank, I.Y. Tamm, and P.A. Cherenkov), while the Soviet regime prevented Boris Pasternak from accepting the literature prize.
It may be of interest to the readers of the Review that Sanger was awarded a second Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1980, together with Paul Berg and Walter Gilbert, for “their contributions concerning the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids.” The latter led to a second revolution in molecular biology. The ability to sequence whole genomes, including human ones, has changed profoundly all biological sciences, from ecology and evolutionary biology to medicine and, beyond those, archaeology and history. The methodologies developed by Sanger to sequence DNA have a clear intellectual link with his earlier work on insulin sequencing.
Imperial College London and Université Paris-Saclay
Jerome Groopman replies:
Fred Sanger was a titan in molecular biology and is appropriately featured as such in Kersten Hall’s Insulin—the Crooked Timber, as are other stellar scientists like Erwin Chargaff, who made seminal contributions following Archer Martin and Richard Synge’s development of partition chromatography. Their omission from my review should not be taken to ignore their roles in the history of the hormone. Rather, I was limited for reasons of space and also aimed to follow Hall’s narrative arc, which he casts as a traditional play in three acts, highlighting the breakthrough discovery of insulin by Frederick Banting, Martin and Synge’s work on partition chromatography in the converted stables, and the use of recombinant DNA technology to clone human insulin. Along with Claudio Scazzocchio, I encourage interested readers to learn about Sanger’s work on insulin and other foundational discoveries.