NEXT month, there will be celebrations in Scotland, especially in Aberdeen, to mark the centenary of the award of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine to Professor John James Rickard Macleod, the Scotsman credited with being the co-discoverer of insulin, who thus helped to save millions of lives as sufferers of diabetes were at last able to be successfully treated for the disease.

Regular readers will know that I often write on the date of, or in advance, of an anniversary and today is no different as it was on this week in 1876 that Macleod was born which gives me the excuse of writing about his life as a sort of preparation for the main story of his career, namely the discovery of insulin and the controversy which surrounded the Nobel Prize award to the Scot.

Macleod was born a son of the manse at Cluny near Dunkeld on September 6, 1876, and he was first educated at home and in the local parish school. In 1833, his father the Rev Robert Macleod moved the family to Aberdeen when he became minister at John Knox United Free Church at Gerrard Street in the Silver City.

Always known as Jack to his friends, Macleod was a bright pupil academically at Aberdeen Grammar School, and from there, he moved on to study medicine at Aberdeen University where he came under the influence and tutelage of a brilliant physiologist, Professor John Alexander MacWilliam, whose pioneering work on heart arrhythmia was widely acclaimed.

Macleod blossomed as a student and became what we Scots know as a “lad o’pairts” for he was always interested in the arts and also became a keen golfer. He graduated with honours in 1898 and by then he had decided he would be a scientific researcher rather than a clinician.

Aberdeen University’s website profile of Macleod states: “Upon graduation, Macleod set his sights on a career in academic physiology, working in a laboratory rather than a clinical setting. Winning a travelling scholarship allowed him to begin his research career in Leipzig where his studies involved him in the evolving field of physiological chemistry.

“Macleod’s research reputation grew quickly and in 1903, 10 days short of his 27th birthday, he set sail for the United States where he had been recruited by a University in Cleveland to become a professor of physiology.

“Several years of research on carbohydrate metabolism led to the publication of his 1913 monograph Diabetes: Its Pathological Physiology, and by 1918, the first edition of his definitive textbook Physiology And Biochemistry In Modern Medicine was published.

“His credentials as a leader in developing training and education, as well as his reputation and prowess as an academic physiologist, attracted the attention of the progressive medical school at the University of Toronto, which headhunted him later that year.”

In view of what happened next, it’s very important to know that by 1920, JJR Macleod was already a very important figure in medical research, especially in diabetes and carbohydrate metabolism. He had first carried out research during a brief spell in London where in 1902 he published his first paper on the subject of phosphorus in muscles and was awarded a doctorate in public health by Cambridge University.

As early as 1905, he had his first work on the subject of diabetes and carbohydrate metabolism published, and in 1910, he gave a famous lecture to the American Medical Association about the various experimental approaches to finding the cause and possibly the cure for diabetes.

Back then, a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes – the sort that mostly afflicts young people – was virtually a death sentence, the only question being how long a person would take to die of the disease for which there was no known cure.

There had been some progress in previous years, and it had been known since 1889 that diabetes developed due to a fault in the pancreas. By the time he moved to Toronto, Macleod was one of the leading figures in diabetes research worldwide, and he knew about all the experiments going on to try and secure pancreatic extracts that would help lower blood sugar in diabetics. Some of it had been carried out in Aberdeen but none anywhere had been successful for more than a day or two – and the side-effects were horrendous.

Then came a fateful meeting in November 1920, which would change the world for diabetics. Macleod was approached by 29-year-old Dr Frederick Grant Banting, a war hero – he won the Military Cross for his bravery on the Western Front – from Allison, Ontario. Banting had the idea of treating diabetes with pancreas extracts but he had not researched the subject as much as Macleod who nevertheless took him on. Within three years, both men would share the Nobel Prize.

The award that made Macleod world-famous in 1923 was shrouded in controversy, as his colleague Banting tried to claim the lion’s share of the credit as you will see next week.

Let me give you a foretaste of what is to come and you’ll see why I am very much siding with Macleod in the controversy which I will report on next week.

In his biography on the Nobel organisation’s website, it states: “Macleod was a very successful teacher and director of research. His lucid lectures were delivered in an attractive manner and his pupils and research associates found him a sympathetic and stimulating worker, who demanded exact work and the humility that was a feature of his character. He would not tolerate careless work. He was much interested in the development of medical education and especially in the introduction of scientific methods of investigation into clinical work.”

Banting was not on par with Macleod in key areas, and next week I will show how JJR Macleod was absolutely entitled to a share of the Nobel Prize.

I will also be looking further at this remarkable man.