Michael Bliss, Historian Who Dispelled Myths of Insulin’s Discovery, Dies at 76



Professor Bliss, who taught at the university from 1968 to 2006, published “The Discovery of Insulin” in 1982. His account upset the commonly held wisdom that the discovery had mainly been the work of two inexperienced researchers from the countryside: Dr. Frederick Banting, a surgeon, and Charles Best, a recent college graduate who had yet to enter medical school.

The Nobel was awarded only to Dr. Banting and J. J. R. Macleod, the head of the university’s physiology department. Most earlier accounts viewed Dr. Macleod as undeserving of the honor, placing him on an overseas holiday while Dr. Banting and Mr. Best labored away.

But using newly released documents — including lab notes and contemporaneous papers that the university had long suppressed to avoid embarrassing the researchers — Professor Bliss detailed a far more complex, if no less acrimonious, story, revealing that the discovery was indeed a team effort by the three and, to varying degrees, others.

While chronicling the infighting among the researchers, “The Discovery of Insulin” also illuminated the science of endocrinology. Shelley McKellar, a professor of medical history at Western University in London, Ontario, who studied under Professor Bliss, said the book, like all of his work, was written in clear, nonacademic prose that made the subject accessible to the general public.

“Deep down he was a writer,” said Professor McKellar. “He always tried to disseminate his research to the widest possible audience.” She noted that he would speak not only to medical conferences but also to women’s social clubs in church basements.

In an essay he wrote in 2004, Professor Bliss said his shift to medical history had been due in part to his family — his father was a small-town doctor on the shore of Lake Erie in southwestern Ontario — as well as “a kind of midlife change of pace.”

He chose the development of insulin as a subject partly because earlier accounts, he found, were inadequate. He was also inspired, he said, by his reading on Arctic exploration.

That “raised for me a methodological interest in the possibility of very detailed, day-to-day recreation of past discrete events,” he wrote, adding, “If you could virtually retrace the footsteps of Arctic explorers could you virtually redo the insulin experiments?”

John William Michael Bliss was born in Leamington, Ontario, on Jan. 18, 1941, to Dr. Quartus Bliss and the former Anne Crowe. He grew up in Kingsville, a farming and fishing town just to the west. In early childhood, Michael, as he was known, would join his father when he was called out to perform his duties as the local coroner. For a while, he considered following his father into medicine.

But that thought was dispelled one weekend when the police came by their house with a drunk who been in a brawl and needed stitches. The man was ushered into his father’s home office.

“As I sat and watched on that Sunday afternoon in his consulting room,” Professor Bliss wrote, “with blood and alcohol fumes everywhere, reflecting on my own complete disinterest in and lack of all manual skills, I decided that this was not what I wanted to do in life.”

He met his future wife, Elizabeth Haslam, at a high school dance in Harrow, Ontario, another farm town. They married in 1963, and both studied at the University of Toronto. Mrs. Bliss, a retired teacher, survives him. Besides their daughter Sally, he is also survived by two other children, Jamie and Laura Bliss; a brother, Robert, and four grandchildren.

Robert Bothwell, another historian at the University of Toronto, said that Professor Bliss had favored writing his books — 14 in all — as expansively as possible. “A Canadian Millionaire” (1978), for example, is nominally a biography of Joseph Flavelle, a Toronto businessman who built his fortune starting in the meatpacking business. But the book is also a tour of the meatpacking trade and Toronto politics in the early 20th century, a portrait of a clique of Methodists who dominated business in Toronto, and a discussion of Canada’s role in World War I.

Professor Bliss had a sometimes uncomfortable relationship with other historians who studied Canada. Unlike some of their works, his business histories, while revealing flaws in both the character and practices of his subjects, were generally sympathetic toward them and business in general. And while he maintained that he was suspicious of all ideologies, his politics were decidedly conservative, if not in a partisan sense, during a time when Canadian history was more commonly viewed from the left.

Professor Bliss was among a small minority of Canadian intellectuals who favored the talks that led to a free-trade agreement between the United States and Canada in 1988, a forerunner of the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1993.

Until his retirement, he wrote often provocative opinion articles for newspapers and appeared frequently on radio and television, in addition to publishing books.

Last year, in a video interview recorded for his induction into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, Professor Bliss said that by the end of his career he had considered himself almost entirely a medical historian, and that he believed that his medical books were his most important works.

Among them are “Banting: A Biography” (1984); “William Osler: A Life in Medicine” (1999), about the renowned Canadian surgeon who helped found Johns Hopkins Hospital; and “Harvey Cushing: A Life in Surgery” (2005), about the pioneering American neurosurgeon and writer (whose own biography of Osler won a Pulitzer Prize).

“Medicine,” Professor Bliss said, “is a wonder that takes you from small town Canada to the Nobel Archives.”

Prof Michael Bliss CMHF 2016 Video by cdnmedhall

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