Pharmacy in History Interview—Kathi Badertscher, “Insulin at 100: Indianapolis, Toronto, Woods Hole, and the ‘Insulin Road'”

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of the Points series of interviews with authors from the latest issue of AIHP’s journal Pharmacy in History (vol. 62, no. 3-4). Today we feature Kathi BadertscherDirector of Graduate Programs and a lecturer at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. You can see her article here. Contact AIHP to subscribe to Pharmacy in History.

Article Abstract

“Insulin at 100” joins a body of new scholarship being produced globally to commemorate the discovery of insulin. This paper brings to light a new perspective on the collaboration between two North American institutions: the University of Toronto in Canada and Eli Lilly & Company in the United States. It focuses on the collaboration’s complexities, actors who have not been examined previously, and implications for both parties and the general public. The article contributes to existing scholarship by expanding the collaboration story to include central actors at both Eli Lilly and the University of Toronto in a continuous and collaborative cycle of discovery and innovation.

Tell readers a little bit about yourself

I am the Director of Graduate Programs and a lecturer at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. I worked in the corporate sector for 26 years before coming to IU as a master’s student. In 2006, I thought I would take a few classes on philanthropy to become a more intentional and informed volunteer, board member, and donor. I never imagined I would stay for the doctoral program and have the privilege of joining the faculty.

Kathi Badertscher PH Interview Title Card

What got you interested in the history of pharmacy, drugs, or pharmaceuticals? 

I have been interested in medical history as long as I can remember. When I worked in the corporate sector, I had a number of hospital, chemical, and pharmaceutical clients. In addition, I was an avocational U.S. historian. My master’s thesis was on Civil War nursing.  My doctoral thesis was about Indianapolis charity/philanthropy and the relationship of the “sectors”: philanthropy, business, and government. And my first published article was about public health in Indiana. My academic “wheelhouse” combines all these interests: philanthropy, business/nonprofit relationships, and healthcare.

When I tell people I wrote my doctoral thesis on Indianapolis philanthropy, the most common question or comment is, “so you wrote about the Lilly family?” I stopped my study in the 1920s (for a variety of reasons), just as insulin was taking off—so the Lilly family was not the centerpiece of my study. This article is a great continuation of my research agenda.

Explain your article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

Or college students won’t find boring! People recognize the “discoverers” of insulin as four scientists from the University of Toronto. My article shows the contributions of the team at Eli Lilly and Company to bring the discovery into large-scale production and to get insulin into the hands of physicians and patients.

1926 Pancreas Glands Eli Lilly
1926 Eli LIlly picture showing the 10,000 pounds of animal pancreas glands required to produce one pound of pure insulin crystals. Such large-scale production was necessary to mass market insulin. Image courtesy of Eli LIlly Company Corporate Archives.

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

I had the privilege of working on a Lilly family book project at the same time as this article. I also have three other articles in different stages of research: (1) an early twentieth-century Indianapolis woman who was in the thick of every club and voluntary association; (2) the movement to combat domestic violence in Indiana; and (3) a nineteenth-century Indiana utopian community. These all probably sound unrelated, but they are connected as each topic involves social movements, voluntarism, and regional history.

Having written about the history of public-private partnerships and large-scale pharmaceutical manufacturing, does your research offers any insights into contemporary public health issues or debates?

I hope so; for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t believe that major pharmaceutical firms are evil (readers: please don’t quit reading yet!). Over the last two years, I have observed directly how Eli Lilly has devoted resources to address the COVID pandemic and has pumped philanthropic goods and services into the community. The people I have gotten to know are genuinely interested in serving the public good. The company is accountable to shareholders, of course, but it has saved millions of lives and contributed to all the communities it touches.

Second, my article demonstrates how much Lilly was willing to invest in research and development (R&D), gambling that it could bring insulin to market. Consumers don’t want to fund R&D by paying for medicines—totally understandably—but R&D money has to come from somewhere. It costs millions of dollars to develop, test, and deliver new medicines—and ultimately we all benefit. So funding R&D is a complex debate with no easy answers.  

1923 Insulin Vacuum Drier Building
This portion of Eli Lilly & Co. building number 20 was devoted to the production of Insulin in 1922. In the foreground, a vacuum drier is being moved into place for production. The drier was used to recover the solvent from exhausted pancreas glands. Image source: August 1923 Tile and Till courtesy of Eli Lilly Company Corporate Archives.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the future of the field?

Collaborations among pharmaceutical firms, academia, and government have been around for decades, as we know. Our society must continue to recognize and support start-up, entrepreneurial incubators in order for innovation to thrive. This can happen through a variety of support mechanisms: seed capital, fellowships, favorable tax incentives, formal and informal research collaboratives, and the willingness for all sectors to take risks. Foundations and government funders want to see guarantees of success when they make grants, but we have to be willing to experiment and be flexible.  

Which scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

Well, I got to live my dream once already. A few years ago, I had dinner with David Oshinsky, Distinguished Professor at NYU. He signed my copies of his books Polio and Bellevue. I was a bit star-struck, but he was gracious and kind.

If I could choose a historian from the past, I would love to have dinner with Richard Hofstadter. I have read much of his work, and I think he would have a lot to say about our society today.

Read “Insulin at 100: Indianapolis, Toronto, Woods Hole, and the ‘Insulin Road'” on JSTOR or request that your library purchase access to Pharmacy in History.

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