Scottish scientist who discovered insulin commemorated with new UK coin

The work of University of Aberdeen graduate and later Regius Professor, JJR Macleod, is celebrated on a new 50p coin in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin.

Macleod, along with Dr Frederick Banting, Dr Charles Best and Dr James Collip, discovered insulin – a treatment that transformed Type 1 diabetes from a short and almost certain death sentence to a manageable condition.

It is the first time the historic medical breakthrough, more often associated with Canada where the work was undertaken, has been celebrated on a UK coin.  

Inspired by an image of human insulin crystals through a microscope, the design by renowned artist Iris De La Torre, features a geometric pattern repeat using hexagons and circular shapes on the canvas of an official UK 50p coin.

The University of Aberdeen was a consultee in the design, providing input on Macleod and diabetes research as part of the creative process.

It is the fifth release in The Royal Mint’s ‘Innovation in Science’ series, which pays tribute to some of the greatest scientific discoveries and follows coins in recognition of inventors Charles Babbage, John Logie Baird, Rosalind Franklin and Stephen Hawking, as part of the collectable series.

Image credit: University of Aberdeen

Professor Mirela Delibegovic, Director of the University of Aberdeen’s Cardiovascular and Diabetes Centre, who consulted in this project, says the release of the UK coin continues the rehabilitation of the memory of JJR Macleod and his role in leading the team which made the eventual insulin breakthrough.

“JJR Macleod was a brilliant scientist who received his education at Aberdeen Grammar School and then the University of Aberdeen,” she said.

“His credentials as a leader in developing training and education, as well as his reputation and prowess as an academic physiologist, caught the attention of the University of Toronto, where the insulin breakthrough was then made in the laboratory he headed.

“But despite being jointly awarded the Nobel Prize with Banting for their work in 1923, Macleod’s name became mired in accusations that he claimed credit where it was not deserved.

“During his lifetime, Macleod’s name was distanced from the breakthrough however the work of a Canadian historian in retelling the story of insulin sixty years later, dispelled many of the myths contained within most popular accounts, which attribute the discovery to Canadian researchers, Frederick Banting and Charles Best.

“His investigations detailed a far more complex story, revealing that the discovery was indeed a team effort for which Macleod rightfully earned his credit.

“Celebrating the centenary of the discovery of insulin on a UK coin supports the rehabilitation of his memory and the legacy of his work both in Aberdeen and beyond.”

JJR Macleod returned to the University of Aberdeen 1928 as Regius Professor of Physiology, teaching and researching until he died in 1935 aged 58.

His legacy has inspired generations of Aberdeen diabetes researchers, including Professor Delibegovic who leads a research team examining causes of insulin resistance.

Professor Brian Frier, an internationally-recognised specialist in diabetes and former Vice-President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, also welcomed the release of the UK coin.

“The discovery of insulin is frequently and inaccurately attributed to Banting and Best, and for decades Macleod was effectively airbrushed out of medical history,” he said.

“The importance of the research of this quiet and self-effacing Scottish scientist cannot be over-estimated and he deserves to be as well-known to the public as is Sir Alexander Fleming for his discovery of penicillin”. 

The 100 Years of Insulin 50p coin is available to purchase from today at The Royal Mint website.

You can view and indeed purchase the new coin here.

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