Breakthrough

Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle

Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg

St. Martin's Press

ONE
 
Christ Church Cranbrook, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, 1981
 
On Tuesday, April 28, 1981, Mourners began to Converge on the wet streets around Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Emerging from their late model cars, they tucked under umbrellas and made their way through the raw spring air toward the carillon bells ringing from the tower. Inside the sanctuary, organ music soared from the south wall of the nave, drawing the eye upward to the intricately carved wood, stone, and brilliant stained glass. As the mourners were ushered into pews, they nodded solemnly to one another; most everyone knew each other. They were gathered to acknowledge the passing of and pay tribute to the remarkable life of a seventy-four-year-old woman who had died three days before. Her name was Elizabeth Hughes Gossett.
Although most of the mourners would likely claim to have known Elizabeth well, only a few people in the church knew just how remarkable her life really was. Dr. Lowell Eklund, dean of continuing education at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, rose to the pulpit to deliver the eulogy. He mentioned Elizabeth’s “intellect, wisdom, quiet yet irresistible leadership.” He mentioned her distinguished service as a trustee of her alma mater, Barnard College, in New York City. He said that she, like her father, America’s most famous lawyer, jurist, and politician, had been a lifelong advocate of self-directed scholarship and perpetual inquiry. It was this spirit, he said, that had led her to play an important role in the founding of Oakland University in 1957.
Did Eklund know that the circumstances of her early life had forced her to pursue her education as a self-directed and largely solitary endeavor? If he knew, he didn’t say.
As heiress to the legacy of a great American statesman, she carried forth her father’s ideals with “modesty, dignity and grace,” he said. Dr. Eklund described her as “a champion of civil rights in speech, in document and in action.” He went on to say that she had cofounded, with her friend Chief Justice Warren Burger, the Supreme Court Historical Society in 1974. But did Eklund know why this daughter was especially compelled to protect her father’s legacy, of how the great man had risked everything for her sake?
Sitting in the front pew with his smooth, clean hands folded in his lap was William T. Gossett, to whom Elizabeth had been married for fifty years, a former member of the church vestry. Around him were seated their three children, Antoinette, William, and Elizabeth, and next to them were their spouses, Basil, Mary, and Fred, respectively. Also seated in front were the eight grandchildren, the eldest of whom was David Wemyss Denning, son of Antoinette and Basil. In 1981 he was a twenty-four-year-old medical student. Dappled light, steeped in the rich jewel tones of the towering east window, played over the heads of the family like the lightest touch from an invisible hand.
David knew that Eklund would not mention what to his mind was one of the most important and remarkable facts of his grandmother’s life. This fact had also been omitted from his grandmother’s obituaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and the leading Michigan papers. In 1922, Elizabeth Hughes was among the first children to receive an experimental pancreatic extract called insulin. By the time of her death, she had received some 42,000 insulin injections over fifty-eight years, probably more than anyone on earth at that time. And yet, through Elizabeth Gossett’s own steadfast efforts only a few people knew this, and those few were sworn to secrecy.
How ironic to hear Eklund describe Elizabeth as a lover of history; it was a perfect alibi for someone who had made a lifework of obfuscating her own history. This effort had been so successful that Dr. Eklund had no knowledge of the brave, bright spirit whose childhood had been tempered in the crucible of death’s daily and intimate companionship.
The last will and testament of Elizabeth Hughes Gossett arranged for the disposition of her jewelry, personal effects, and works of art. After the will was executed, there remained in her estate an odd collection of cryptic relics, like a muddle of jigsaw puzzle pieces from different puzzles:
 
Thirty or so letters tied with a satin ribbon. The letters had been written by Elizabeth during 1921 and 1922, mostly to her mother (“Mumsey”), when Elizabeth was fourteen and fifteen years old. The letters had been written from New York State, Bermuda, and Toronto, marking points on her peripatetic attempt to evade the death that pursued her relentlessly.
A small, hand-knitted sweater of fine, faded blue wool, which looked to be made for a child eight or nine years old.
An old photograph of a modest house in Glens Falls, New York, showing a rocking chair on the front porch. On the back of the image were the words, Save one life and save the world, written in indigo ink in an elegant hand.
A square of canvas removed from its frame, bearing a rough oil painting of a farm house rendered in pigments of burnt umber and cobalt.
A small brown glass medicinal vial with an age-yellowed label on which the words had faded to illegibility.
 
These mute artifacts were all that remained of Elizabeth Hughes’s life before her miraculous transformation into an entirely different girl. What follows is the improbable story of that Elizabeth—the Elizabeth that Elizabeth erased. This is the story of Elizabeth Hughes, who “vanished” in December of 1922 without a memorial service or a funeral, without anyone ever really even noticing.
 
Excerpted from Breakthrough by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg.
Copyright © 2010 by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg.
Published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.