There were four critical contributions made by science during the 1920s:
* Insulin is discovered by Sir Frederick Grant Banting during the winter of 1921-1922
* Penicillin is discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming (1928)
* Prediction and discovery of the expanding universe
* Niels Bohr wins Nobel for work on atomic theory. (1922)
Insulin was discovered in 1921, and it became the most thoroughly studied molecule in scientific history. In the early 1920s, researchers suspected
that diabetes was caused by a malfunction in the digestive system related to the pancreas gland, a small organ that sits on top of the liver. At that time, the only way to “control” diabetes was through a diet low in carbohydrate and sugar, and high in fat and protein. Instead of dying shortly after diagnosis, this diet allowed diabetics to live – but only for about a year. The exact cause of diabetes was unknown, but researchers suspected something was missing in the sugar metabolism pathway of people with diabetes. The cause was determined when Canadian researchers purified insulin in 1921 and proved that diabetes is a disease of insulin deficiency. Meanwhile, an American scientist E. L. Scott was partially successful in extracting insulin with alcohol. R. C. Paulesco, a Romanian, made an extract from the pancreas that lowered the blood glucose of dogs. Some claim Paulesco was the first to discover insulin. The biggest breakthrough came in 1921 when Frederick Banting and Charles Best conducted a series of experiments one summer in the laboratory of J.J. R. Macleod at the University of Toronto. Like Minkowski and von Mering, they showed that removing the pancreas from dogs made them diabetic.
In January, 1922, a diabetic teenager in a Toronto hospital named Leonard Thompson became the first person to receive an injection of insulin. He improved dramatically, and the news about insulin spread around the world like wildfire. For their work, Banting and Macleod received the Nobel Prize in Medicine the very next year, in 1923. Banting shared his part of the prize money with Best, and Macleod shared his with Collip.
The University of Toronto immediately gave pharmaceutical companies license to produce insulin free of royalties. In early 1923, about one year after the first test injection, insulin became widely available, and saved countless lives. Thus Insulin became the miracle cure for diabetes in the era of great depression during the 1920s.
Another important discovery in the 1920s was the discovery of penicillin. The discovery of penicillin is usually attributed to Scottish scientist Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928, though others had earlier noted the antibacterial effects of Penicillium. Fleming, at his laboratory in St. Mary’s Hospital in London, noticed a halo of inhibition of bacterial growth around a contaminant blue-green mold on a Staphylococcus plate culture. Fleming concluded that the mold was releasing a substance that was inhibiting bacterial growth and lysing the bacteria. He grew a pure culture of the mold and discovered that it was a Penicillium mold. Fleming coined the term “penicillin” to describe the filtrate of a broth culture of the Penicillium mold. Even in these early stages, penicillin was found to be most effective against Gram-positive bacteria, and ineffective against Gram-negative organisms and fungi. He expressed initial optimism that penicillin would be a useful disinfectant, being highly potent with minimal toxicity compared to antiseptics of the day. After further experiments, Fleming was convinced that penicillin could not last long enough in the human body to kill pathogenic bacteria and stopped studying penicillin after 1931, but restarted some clinical trials in 1934 and continued to try to get someone to purify it until 1940.
The discovery of Penicillin set the stage for a major cure for infections from war wounds. During World War II, penicillin made a major difference in the number of deaths and amputations caused by infected wounds amongst Allied forces; saving an estimated 12-15% of lives. Availability was severely limited, however, by the difficulty of manufacturing large quantities of penicillin and by the rapid renal clearance of the drug necessitating frequent dosing. Penicillins are actively secreted and about 80% of a penicillin dose is cleared within three to four hours of administration. During those times it became common procedure to collect the urine from patients being treated so that the penicillin could be isolated and reused.
Major discoveries in the 1920s included the structure of the light. In 1921 Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his 1905 publication on the photoelectric effect: “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light”. This paper alone was recognized by the Nobel committee because it was supported by the experimental evidence of the day, but the committee expressed the opinion that in due course all of Einstein’s work would be confirmed.
Niels (Henrik David) Bohr (October 7, 1885 – November 18, 1962) was a Danish physicist who made fundamental contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1922. He was also part of the team of physicists working on the Manhattan Project. Niels Bohr is widely considered one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century. In 1922, Bohr was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics “for his services in the investigation of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating from them”. Bohr’s institute served as a focal point for theoretical physicists in the 1920s and ’30s, and most of the world’s best known theoretical physicists of that period spent some time there.
Probably the most important theory of the time was the Big Bang theory. It was important because it represented a new view on creation of universe, apart from religious understandings. Fundamentalists didn’t want to accept this theory because it was completely different than religious theory they believed in. According to the Big Bang theory explaining the birth of an expanding universe, the Universe originated in an extremely dense ball of pure matter. Since then, space itself has expanded with the passage of time, carrying the galaxies with it. Fundamentalists also opposed Darwin’s theory of evolution. Some states even banned teaching of that theory because it was unbiblical. They banned “any theory that denies the story of the Divine creation of the man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals” (source 2, pg 38). One biology teacher, John F. Scopes dared to oppose the law and he had a trial that became a national sensation.
Science discoveries of the 1920s weren’t always accepted by the large masses, but Nobel prices gave the sense of the importance to the new discoveries. Fundamentalist strongly opposed science and the fight between those two was constant. The difference between scientific and religious beliefs in the 1920s was huge and it affected the whole society, even the school system. Many private schools were open so that children can learn what they parents believe is true. Discoveries in the 1920s made path to the future wider and changed the society in something close to present state.
1. Lightman, Alan. The Discoveries. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2005. 3-533.
2. Pietrusza, David. The Roaring Twenties. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998. 6-96.
3. Wukovits, John F., ed. The 1920s. San Diego: Greenhaven P, 2000. 7-255.