A tall granite gravestone inside Aberdeen’s Allenvale Cemetery bears a name that should be known by every primary school pupil in Scotland. Beneath a carved staff and serpent, the Greek symbol of the healing arts, the stone’s art deco letters spell out the words John James Rickard Macleod, FRS, LLD, MBChB, DPH, DSc, FRCP, Co-Discoverer of Insulin.
Aside from this monument – which modestly omits any mention of Macleod’s 1923 Nobel Prize – few other memorials exist for the renowned physiologist who led a University of Toronto team to develop the world’s first clinically useful insulin. For one reason or another, Macleod’s key role has been almost entirely overlooked or forgotten; instead, the “miracle treatment” of insulin is usually wrongly attributed to Frederick Banting and Charles Best, who are widely celebrated in Canada as the duo who discovered insulin.
This fabricated fairy tale is an ongoing source of frustration for Dr Ken McHardy, a retired Aberdeen diabetologist and authority on Macleod’s life and work. While Banting did (reluctantly) share the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology with his acclaimed Scottish boss, Dr McHardy believes that “the animosity over who should get credit for the discovery of insulin was unfortunate and unnecessary, and led to Macleod’s reputation being unfairly tarnished.”
It is this injustice, essentially an “air brushing from history” of Macleod’s name and legacy, that inspired another Aberdonian to commission a worthy tribute to the man who saved his life and millions of others with Type 1 diabetes.
“I was stunned to learn that the co-discoverer of insulin was from the same city where I was born and raised, yet I’d never heard of him,” says John Otto, who has lived with Type 1 diabetes for nearly 50 years and is the Founder of the JJR Macleod Memorial Statue Society.
Asking around, it soon became apparent that few others had heard of Macleod either, despite the fact that his many accomplishments place him amongst Scotland’s most notable native sons. John vowed to do something to raise awareness of this unsung hero’s contributions to humanity and the proud place he deserves in British history.
Type 1 diabetes usually presents in younger people, who then remain insulin dependent for life. There is no cure but it can be managed, typically with multiple daily injections. By comparison, a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes prior to 1922 was nothing short of a death sentence. The only way individuals with this condition could stay alive back then was to follow a near starvation diet, and even that didn’t work for long. Once insulin became available, the future for people with Type 1 diabetes was forever changed.
John’s determined vow to honour the Scottish scientist will come to fruition later this year in the form of a life-sized bronze statue of Professor Macleod in Aberdeen’s Duthie Park. The memorial will be unveiled in Autumn 2023 to mark the 100th anniversary of Macleod’s Nobel Prize. To date, no other Nobel Prize has been awarded as swiftly, less than two years after clinically useful insulin was successfully administered to a human patient for the first time.
A major catalyst for the JJR Macleod Memorial was a chance meeting between John Otto and Ayrshire sculptor John McKenna. Both men attended the 2020 unveiling of a bronze memorial in Strathaven, Lanarkshire, where local residents had commissioned a statue of a heroic war dog with his Scottish handler.
“The residents of this small town had come together to raise enough funding to make that memorial a reality, which was incredibly inspiring,” says John. “I spoke to the sculptor and he was as excited as I was about honouring the man who helped give insulin to the world.”
To date, fundraising for the Macleod project has been predominantly from local sources, with sponsorships and in-kind donations provided by Aberdeen residents and companies. Sponsorship packages above a certain level include a personalised paver on the memorial’s granite base. There will also be a Type 1 community paver collectively funded by people directly impacted by diabetes, inscribed, “With heartfelt gratitude from all who owe their lives to insulin.”
With the passage of time and the publication of Dr Michael Bliss’s 1982 myth-busting book, The Discovery of Insulin, Macleod’s unparalleled contribution to the University of Toronto team is at last becoming more widely known. In the words of eminent Edinburgh diabetologist Professor Brian Frier, “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 Sir Alexander Fleming for his discovery of penicillin”.
The Macleod Memorial is also unique in that it will be Scotland’s first “Storytelling Statue”. There are a number of statues featuring this patented technology in cities worldwide, including London and Manchester. Visitors simply scan a QR code, an app “calls” their mobile and a brief recording plays of an actor speaking as the statue. Aberdonian stage and television actor David Rintoul (Game of Thrones, The Crown, Dr Finlay) recorded Macleod’s voice in a genuine Aberdeen accent. The app will be a playful and interactive way to bring Jack Macleod’s story to life.
“It’s been said that the discovery of insulin was one of the most dramatic events in the history of medicine,” John says. “Macleod was an exceedingly humble man, but I bet he’d be fair chuffed to finally receive the recognition he so rightfully deserves here in his native land.
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