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World Diabetes Day: Honoring Diabetes Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine

Philip A. Shaffer at his laboratory work bench, ca. 1934.
Philip A. Shaffer at his laboratory work bench, ca. 1934.
Before and after photos of one of the children treated at St. Louis Children's H
Before and after photos of one of the children treated at St. Louis Children's Hospital with Shaffer's insulin, 1922-23.
Michael Somogyi in his laboratory at the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis, ca. 1955.
Michael Somogyi in his laboratory at the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis, ca. 1955. Somogyi was recruited by Shaffer to come to the Medical School in 1922. In 1926 he became the first chemist in the research laboratories of the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis.
Edward Doisy
Edward Doisy came to the Department of Biological Chemistry in 1919. In 1923 he left Washington University to become Professor and Chair of the Department of Biochemistry at St. Louis University. He would share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1943 with Henrik Dam for the discovery of vitamin K.
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November 14th is World Diabetes Day, a campaign led by the International Diabetes Federation to engage millions of people worldwide in diabetes advocacy and awareness. November 14 was chosen to mark the birthday of Frederick Banting who, along with Charles Best, first conceived the idea which led to the discovery of insulin.

In 1922, only months after Banting and Best's initial discovery, Philip Shaffer, Professor of Biological Chemistry at the Washington University School of Medicine, helped make the first insulin used to treat a child for diabetes in the United States.

Shaffer's first contribution to diabetes research came when he and medical student Alexis Hartmann developed a method to rapidly measure very small amounts of sugar in blood. When Banting and Best at the University of Toronto did their Nobel Prize winning research for the discovery of insulin they used the Shaffer-Hartmann test to evaluate their findings. Shaffer would then improve upon their initial discovery to the benefit of millions of diabetics in the decades to come.

Shortly after Banting and Best published their findings, an infant in a diabetic coma was admitted to St. Louis Children's Hospital. Shaffer was asked by the physicians at the hospital to create some insulin to treat the child. Shaffer already had been trying to isolate insulin by following the Toronto group's method; however, he and his colleagues, Michael Somogyi and Edward Doisy, improved upon the method. They were able to make greater concentrations of active insulin by using isoelectric precipitation. With pure insulin available the child was saved and lived into adulthood – an early example of the “bench to bedside” goal of translational medicine. As Shaffer and his group were refining the production of insulin and treating other children, biochemists at Eli Lilly also came up with the isoelectric precipitation method.  When the pharmaceutical manufacturer tried to patent the method, Shaffer worked with Eli Lilly and the Insulin Committee, set up at the University of Toronto, to insure that this more effective process of producing insulin would not be exclusively controlled by one company.

Philip A. Shaffer (1881-1960) was Professor and Chair of the Department of Biological Chemistry at the Washington University School of Medicine from 1910 until 1946. He twice served as Dean of the Medical School, from 1915 to 1919 and from 1937 to 1946. He was Distinguished Service Professor of Biological Chemistry from 1946 to 1952, becoming Emeritus in 1951 when he retired from the faculty.

After receiving his PhD from Harvard University at the age of 23 he began his research on carbohydrate metabolism. At the age of 28 he was recruited to the Chair of Biological Chemistry. During the First World War he served as a Major in the U.S. Army overseeing the diets of the Army's Expeditionary Forces.

Shaffer's influence at the Medical School would be long lasting through his remarkable ability to identify and recruit talented researchers. Apart from Somogyi and Doisy, he also was responsible for bringing Carl and Gerty Cori to the School. Doisy and the Coris would eventually be awarded Nobel Prizes for their research.

Philip Shaffer's papers are available in the Archives of the Bernard Becker Medical Library.

 

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