Innovation Through the Lens of History

The initial use of insulin to treat diabetes failed until, as this new Heritage Minute illustrates, the formula was purified—and the first of millions of lives was saved. Historica Canada photo

Next year marks the centenary of the discovery of insulin by Dr. Frederick Banting, Charles Best, J.J.R. Macleod and James Collip at the University of Toronto. As Historica Canada releases the Heritage Minute on the discovery, Anthony Wilson-Smith and Bronwyn Graves reflect on what the Minutes have taught us about Canada, innovation and the spirit that has sustained us through a pandemic. 

Anthony Wilson-Smith and Bronwyn Graves 

Leonard Thompson was 13 years old when he received his abrupt death sentence. Until then, as a youth in the Beaches area of Toronto, he was best known for his warm personality, fondness for sports, and a growth spurt that had taken him to 5 feet 11 inches tall. When he suddenly developed constant, insatiable hunger and thirst, doctors feared the worst—and then confirmed it. His blood sugar level was soaring, made worse each time he ate. With a starvation diet as the only treatment, his weight fell to 65 pounds. It seemed inevitable he would slip into coma—and from there, to death.

After his parents carried him into Toronto General Hospital, doctors told his father, Harry, the only hope was an experimental, never-tried treatment. The desperate parents agreed but the injection failed, causing an allergic reaction that made Leonard even more ill. After the serum was further purified, they tried again—with immediate success. His blood sugar fell; he was able to eat and gain weight. After four months, he went home to an otherwise regular life. 

And so, insulin was created, the first successful treatment for Leonard’s malady: diabetes. The work of Dr. Frederick Banting, Charles Best, Prof. J.J.R. Macleod and biochemist James Collip, it is Canada’s century-old gift to the world. As the Canadian actor Victor Garber—himself diabetic—observes in a new Heritage Minute about the discovery, Thompson’s was the first of millions of lives saved globally since then.

As a medical innovation, the discovery ranks alongside breakthrough treatments for polio, smallpox and vaccines used to combat the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic.

The discovery of insulin is one of the most far-reaching examples of the impact of Canadian innovators and innovation. With the centenary of the discovery in 2022 (work on it began in 1921), it was an obvious choice to become a Heritage Minute, produced by our non-profit organization, Historica Canada. (The Minutes, for those unfamiliar, commemorate people and occasions that have helped shape the country that we are today.) The discovery of insulin belongs to a long list of innovations and inventions in fields that include—but are not limited to—science, sports, communication, architecture, aviation and such everyday blessings as a baby jumper accessory (created by Olivia Poole, drawing on the cradleboards of her Ojibwe heritage). Our mini-documentary series Inspiring Innovators, produced in partnership with the Rideau Hall Foundation, tells the stories in animated form of Canadians who have made this world safer, more advanced, and just plain better through their discoveries.

As we celebrate innovators, consider the qualities that innovation requires. Those include a willingness to look at dilemmas through different lenses, coupled with the conviction required to move forward with the resultant new ideas. Sometimes, there are further challenges, as with Elsie MacGill, the subject of a 2020 Minute. The world’s first female aeronautics engineer, MacGill oversaw production of Hawker Hurricane aircraft made in Canada during the Second World War while facing down sexism and limitations in her mobility after contracting polio.

Today, amid the global challenges and tragedies of the pandemic, we again see innovative qualities. They are reflected in everything from safety measures engineered on the fly, to the mass shift from offices to working remotely at home, to refocusing the way products and programs are presented in order to appeal to a market changing in front of us.

That has been the case at Historica Canada, where the pandemic required that we quickly institute substantive changes to our offerings. Our Memory Project has, for two decades, arranged in-person visits to schools and other public institutions by current and former members of our military to describe their first-hand experiences. When the pandemic hit full force in March, 2020, it was obvious that we could no longer continue in the same way. Our team immediately began contacting schools to re-schedule existing visits and arrange for new ones via Zoom, Teams, or similar platforms. At the same time, they introduced more than 500 of our roster of speakers—some in their 90s—to the tools needed for remote broadcasting.

The headaches in making such a pivot included technical challenges; the loss of immediacy that is part of in-person visits; the need overnight to reposition a decades-old way of doing things. But the new format also brought advantages.  Our speakers, including the very elderly, could make their appearances without travelling. We can reach remote destinations and arrange a very precise match of speakers.  For example, Bob Crane, a veteran of Indigenous origin in Ontario, spoke to Inuk students last fall at Jonah Amitnaaq Secondary School in Baker Lake, Nunavut. 

The production of our Minute on insulin provided another example of mid-pandemic innovation. With limits on gatherings, the traditional way of shooting scenes went out the window. Instead, our people, based in Toronto and Halifax, monitored the shoot via live cams at the decommissioned Riverside Hospital in Coquitlam, British Columbia. That allowed Davida Aronovitch, our director in charge of Minutes, to stay in direct touch with our partner, Shotglass Productions, to ensure we were in sync on the look and feel. We brought in costume and production designers for Zoom meets well before production to ensure historical accuracy, mindful that we could not make changes on-set. The script was written with an eye to maintaining distancing and avoiding crowd scenes. Despite all that, the Minute came in on time and budget—in fact, the quickest turnaround of any production of recent years. 

We have also been reminded in the last year of another important consideration in studying our past: an event only happens once, but can be interpreted countless ways. The overdue, widespread focus on more inclusive stories and history shows that our past is best understood when it reflects the experiences, travails and contributions of all who were part of it. Although we have long sought out experts from the communities we feature in our various programs, we formalized that process to ensure that those communities have greater involvement. The production companies with which we work are required to ensure that when we make Minutes on a specific community, some so-called “key creative” roles such as director, writer and/or director of photography will be from that community (as well as the experts we consult.) 

The Canadian Encyclopedia has begun a project to add new entries exploring the geography and history of First Nations reserves and Indigenous communities/settlements across Canada. We produced a series of videos called Voices from Here, in which Indigenous people speak directly to the camera in telling of their lives, traditions and beliefs. An upcoming series of podcasts will do the equivalent in featuring Black Canadian history, and a series on multiculturalism explores stories of different groups through the experiences of people within those communities. All of these measures are part of an evolving process—much like the overall study of history. Those steps are an enhancement of our mandate to offer a comprehensive telling of Canada’s history.

Another part of our mandate is to ensure Canadians watch and listen to our content. Over the last decade, we shifted from being largely event-based to focusing almost exclusively on the digital world. All of our platforms registered increases in usage last year, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—and our new star, TikTok. That platform—with a prime user base between 10-29 and emphasis on brief videos and youth-focused subjects—wasn’t, at first look, a natural fit. But in the seven months since we launched, it has become our most engaged platform, accounting for more than nine million views of our offerings and introducing our national story to a new, younger audience. 

Our Minutes still air on television (as they have since the 1990s) but their biggest impact is online, where they routinely draw more than four million views within their first month of release (such as our recent Minute on Oscar Peterson.) We have more than 350,000 followers on our various social media accounts; reach more than 100,000 teachers annually through e-blasts, conferences and mailings and our learning tools designed for Canadian teachers, draw more than 150,000 visits annually.

Ultimately, one lesson from all this is that Canada is historically a place of cause and effect—as much a product of continuing innovation as a country where innovation takes place. We bring together different people and ways of thinking, sometimes uneasily. We see that tension reflected at times in how we look at our past, celebrating some aspects and regretting, denying or ignoring others. 

Historically, we’ve worried about whether there is a “Canadian identity”, even as it arguably lies in our reputation as a country where people aren’t required to fit a national stereotype. Our differences can and do sometimes divide us in unpleasant ways. But they also cause us to find creative solutions in how we think, live and look upon our lives. Out of those elements come remarkable innovations and, as history shows us, the path to better tomorrows. 

Contributing Writer Anthony Wilson-Smith is President and CEO of Historica Canada, and a former Editor of Maclean’s.

Bronwyn Graves is Director of Education and Programs at Historica Canada and Editor-in-Chief at The Canadian Encyclopedia.