Though we all have friends and family with diabetes, I had never given any thought to when and where the insulin they use for the condition was discovered. But then I met this story.
Fred Banting is an outsider – a kid off a farm who trained as a surgeon, got sent to the trenches of the First World War, went back to his native Canada with PTSD, and now has this crazy idea he knows how to cure diabetes.
He talks his way into the hospital in Toronto, where a dour Scottish professor called Macleod gives him a chance to prove himself, much against his better judgement.
It’s a match made in hell, an inverted love story about pride and anger. Impulse against method. Risk-taking versus caution. With incredibly high stakes – because up until 1922 every single person in the world to develop diabetes would inevitably die.
And when I found out that by the time they were done, Banting and Macleod hated each other so much they wouldn’t share a platform to accept the Nobel prize, I knew this was the film for me.
Today, Fred Banting is a hero; a maverick who succeeded against the odds, and despite the Establishment. But it was Professor Macleod whose voice immediately spoke to me.
I grew up in West Lothian, Scotland, with a miner as a father. The Family Doctors I knew were men like Macleod: stern, self-controlled Presbyterians, but with great skill and kindness beneath the forbidding exterior. I could see how Macleod’s training, no – his whole upbringing – would conflict with the scattergun approach of crazy, intuitive Banting. Macleod’s story is both tragedy and triumph: tragedy because after decades of work, an upstart comes along who solves, in a few months, the problem he’s spent his life on. And triumph because Macleod cares deeply and intensely about his patients. And they are saved.
The screenplay beautifully captures the bitter, destructive struggle between the two men as they try to overcome their enmity to achieve the prize – a cure for the incurable. Two powerhouse, central performers can show how combustible the mixture of naked ambition, altruism and personal envy can become.
And set alongside their story, we also become intensely involved in the fate of Elizabeth Hughes, a teenager with Type1 diabetes, who will certainly die if the researchers fail in their quest. Elizabeth Hughes was one of the first people to receive insulin, and to live a normal life subsequently. It was her description of insulin, “Unspeakably Wonderful”, that has been the working title of the movie.
The top floor of the Science Museum houses the Wellcome Trust, which has exhibits showing the history of medicine. When I last visited, years ago now, unlike the bright installations on the lower floors, it was rather dimly lit and there was a slight mustiness which added a gothic quality to the models of medical care from ages past. This uneasy sense of horror will pervade Unspeakably Wonderful as I see it, reflected in the colour palate, the filming, the sets and the music. There is a feel of post-Victorian melodrama to the story: indeed, it’s hard to believe that both the cruel starvation diets imposed on pre-insulin patients, and the macabre vivisection experiments that were part of the search for a cure could belong in the twentieth century.
Unspeakably Wonderful is also a film about the many versions of courage. The Great War damaged Fred Banting physically and mentally, and casts its long shadow over the film. Elizabeth is an indomitable young girl, determined to live, but who grows up by coming to terms with her own probable death. And Macleod is a dogged, curmudgeonly saint who daily confronts his own failure and refuses to give in.
The story could stand alone as a drama about the little known true events of that long hot summer of 1920. But it also speaks to us today. Scientists are human, as Covid has taught us. And in 1920 the world was in the grip of a much nastier pandemic – the Spanish flu. Science does not happen by magic, death lurks in unexpected corners, and discoveries which seem “inevitable” today were often achieved by accident or good fortune. Vanity affects supposed scientific “truth.”
Unspeakably Wonderful will be a compelling movie, both through the extraordinary story it tells and in the questions it raises about medicine, science and the price of success.