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Nicolae Paulescu (October 30, 1869 – July 17, 1931) was a Romanian physiologist, professor of medicine, and a discoverer of insulin (which he termed pancreatine).
Early life and activities
Born in Bucharest, he was the first of four children of father Costache Paulescu and mother Maria Paulescu. He displayed remarkable abilities as early as his first school years. He learned French, Latin and Ancient Greek at an early age, so that a few years later he became fluent in all these languages and was able to read classical works of Latin and Greek literature in the original. He also had a particular gift for drawing and music and special inclinations towards natural sciences, such as physics and chemistry. He graduated from the Mihai Viteazu High School in Bucharest, in 1888.
In the autumn of 1888, Paulescu left for Paris, where he enrolled in medical school. In 1897 he graduated with a Doctor of Medicine degree, and was immediately appointed as assistant surgeon at the Notre-Dame du Perpétuel-Secours Hospital. In 1900, Paulescu returned to Romania, where he remained until his death (1931) as Head of the Physiology Department of the University of Bucharest Medical School, as well as a Professor of Clinical Medicine at the St. Vincent de Paul Hospital in Bucharest.
Paulescu's discovery of insulin
In 1916, he succeeded in developing an aqueous pancreatic extract which, when injected into a diabetic dog, proved to have a normalizing effect on blood sugar levels. After a gap during World War I, he resumed his research and succeeded in isolating the antidiabetic pancreatic hormone (pancreine).
From April 24 to June 23, 1921, Paulescu published four papers at the Romanian Section of the Society of Biology in Paris:
- The effect of the pancreatic extract injected into a diabetic animal by way of the blood.
- The influence of the time elapsed from the intravenous pancreatic injection into a diabetic animal.
- The effect of the pancreatic extract injected into a normal animal by way of the blood.
An extensive paper on this subject - Research on the Role of the Pancreas in Food Assimilation - was submitted by Paulescu on June 22 to the Archives Internationales de Physiologie in Liège, Belgium, and was published in the August 1921 issue of this journal.
Furthermore, Paulescu secured the patent rights for his method of manufacturing pancreine (his own term for insulin) on April 10, 1922 (patent no. 6254) from the Romanian Ministry of Industry and Trade.
Nobel Prize controversy
Eight months after Paulescu's works were published, doctor Frederick Grant Banting and biochemist John James Richard Macleod from the University of Toronto, Canada, published their paper on the successful use of a pancreatic extract for normalizing blood sugar (glucose) levels (glycemia) in diabetic dogs. Paulescu supporters think that their paper is a mere confirmatory paper, saying that the paper made direct references to Paulescu's article but misquoted that article as follows:
"He [Paulescu] states that injections into peripheral veins produce no effect and his experiments show that second injections do not produce such marked effect as the first",
which, Paulescu supporters said, is exactly the opposite of what Paulescu found out. Later on, Paulescu supporters claim Banting said that
"I regret very much that there was an error in our translation of Professor Paulescu's article, I cannot recollect, after this length of time, exactly what happened (...) I do not remember whether we relied on our own poor French or whether we had a translation made. In any case I would like to state how sorry I am for this unfortunate error (...)"
While Paulescu had patented his technique in Romania, no clinical use resulted from his work. The work published by Banting, Best, Collip and McLeod represented the injection of purified insulin extract into a diabetic individual ameliorating symptoms of the disease. Not surprisingly, Banting and Macleod received the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of insulin. While it seems fair to say that Paulescu deserved to share in the prize, so did Collip and Best, who were left out (Banting and McLeod decided to share the prize money with them). International recognition for Paulescu's contribution to the discovery of insulin came only years later.
Professor Ian Murray, considered by Paulescu supporters as an internationally regarded physiologist, was particularly active in working to correct "the historical wrong" against Paulescu. Murray was a professor of physiology at the Anderson College of Medicine in Glasgow, Scotland, the head of the department of Metabolic Diseases at a leading Glasgow hospital, vice-president of the British Association of Diabetes, and a founding member of the International Diabetes Federation. Paulescu supporters said that in an article for a 1971 issue of the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Murray wrote:
"Insufficient recognition has been given to Paulesco, the distinguished Roumanian scientist, who at the time when the Toronto team were commencing their research had already succeeded in extracting the antidiabetic hormone of the pancreas and proving its efficacy in reducing the hyperglycaemia in diabetic dogs."
"In a recent private communication Professor Tiselius, head of the Nobel Institute, has expressed his personal opinion that Paulesco was equally worthy of the award in 1923."
Paulescu has been criticized for expressing antisemitic and anti-Masonic views in articles such as The Judeo-Masonic plot against the Romanian nation. He was an associate of A. C. Cuza, and wrote extensively for the latter's newspaper Apărarea Naţională. In one of his pamphlets, he called for the extermination of Jews:
Paulescu believed that the Talmud was a device for the destruction of other nations and that the Jews used alcohol to weaken the Romanian people. His outpouring of anti-Semitic books and pamphlets was considerable, and in one he asked, “Can we perhaps exterminate them [the Jews] in the ways bedbugs are killed?” His answer: “That would be the simplest, easiest and fastest way to get rid of them.”
"If the Nobel Committee in 1923 judged the entire persona of its laureate, then Hôtel Dieu in 2003 must do no less and conclude that Paulescu's brutal inhumanity nullifies any scientific merit" (Simon Wiesenthal Center letter to the French Minister of Health, Jean-François Mattéi, and the Romanian Ambassador in Paris).
Nicolae Cajal, a Romanian Jewish member of the Romanian Academy of Sciences and the President of the Jewish Communities' Federation of Romania from 1994 to 2004, defended recognition of Paulescu's scientific work, saying there is a need to distinguish between individuals' private views and their scientific merit and that his father, a student of Paulescu, had admired Paulescu for his scientific skills though he disagreed (as a Jew) with Paulescu's anti-Semitic views.
Paulescu died in 1931 in Bucharest. He is buried in Bellu cemetery.
In 1990, he was elected posthumously to the Romanian Academy. On June 27, 1993, in Cluj-Napoca, a postmark was dedicated in Paulescu’s honor to observe the World Day Against Diabetes. Paulescu was also honored on a postage stamp issued by Romania in 1994. The stamp is one in a set of seven stamps honoring famous Romanians. In 1993, a new Institute of Diabetes, Nutrition and Metabolic Diseases in Bucharest was named in his honor.
- (Romanian) William Totok, Cazul lui Nicolae C. Paulescu (II), in Revista 22, nr. 710.
- Simon Wiesenthal Center document.
- "Romanian Physician Contributes to the Control of Diabetes", in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 1996;71:522ro:Nicolae Paulescu