Hans Christian Hagedorn
Hans Christian Hagedorn (1888-1971) was one of the leading physicians and medical pioneers in Denmark in the first half of the 20th century. He founded the Steno Diabetes Center in Copenhagen and was its Chief Physician for 26 years. He was also the man behind the first long-acting insulin preparation, NPH (Neutral Protamine Hagedorn).
Hans Christian Hagedorn as a young manBorn in Copenhagen on March 6th 1888, Hagedorn spent much of his childhood aboard his father’s 700-ton steamboat, built not only to carry freight but to act as an educational institution, which aimed to bring young men up in the spirit of the Danish Folk High Schools. By the age of seven Hagedorn was already interested in science, and ordered his elder sister to assist when he set out along the streets to classify dog droppings. He went on to study medicine at the University of Copenhagen and at one time was an assistant to Professor Christian Bohr, father of Nobel laureate Niels Bohr.
Hagedorn went through a period of depression after completing his medical degree, and opted to work in a small hospital at Herning in the far west of Denmark – chosen because it was as far away as possible from parents and university. There he fell in love with Maria, the local dentist, married, and settled down as a general practioner in one of the poorest areas of Denmark. Finding that no children appeared and that life lacked excitement, he joined forces with the local pharmacist, the young Birger Norman Jensen, to work on a micromethod for the determination of blood glucose. They were so successful that the Hagedorn Norman Jensen method was published only one year later on August 1st 1918 , a test so easy and reliable that it remained the method of choice in many laboratories around the world for the next 40 years.
Soon after this, the Spanish flu epidemic struck Denmark, and Hagedorn was kept busy dealing with its consequences before moving to a poorly paid position at a hospital in Copenhagen, where he started work on a thesis entitled ‘On the regulation of blood sugar in men’. The Nobel laureate August Krogh and his wife Marie were so impressed by Hagedorn’s public defence of his dissertation, that Marie, who had recently developed diabetes, asked for a consultation. Hagedorn became their personal diabetes expert. In 1922 the Kroghs visited Toronto in the course of a lecture tour, and were shown the first clinical results of insulin. They asked for and were granted permission to produce insulin in Scandinavia. Hagedorn soon became the driving force in the development of the first Danish insulin preparation and founded the Nordisk Insulin laboratory. As the purity of insulin improved, its action became shorter, and in 1928 Elliot Joslin (1870-1962) wrote ‘how thankful all will be when insulin can be given in such a form that its action would be of longer duration and without sharp peak effect.’ Hagedorn solved both problems by inventing protamine insulin in collaboration with Norman Jensen and Inger Wodstrup ; it was patented in 1936. Once crystallised by Rosenberg and Krayenbühl at the Nordisk Insulin laboratory, NPH became the long-acting insulin of choice, and still remains the most widely sold insulin preparation.
Hagedorn became busy, flying from place to place in his primitive sports plane and tackling every task he came across, from the production of insulin, to lecturing, treating patients at the Steno Diabetes Center, patenting new discoveries and managing his huge apple plantation in Stavreby. When a shortage of pancreas was anticipated, he travelled to the South Polar Sea to explore the possibility of preparing whale insulin from 50-kg whale pancreases, preparing the first whale insulin on the deck of a whaling boat. It proved too expensive .
World War Two was a testing time, especially as Hagedorn refused any form of collaboration during the German occupation of Denmark. Despite a fall in turnover from 2.8 to 1.5 million kroner a year, he resisted German pressure to produce more insulin, while telling the occupiers that ‘a request from the Red Cross would, however, be met’. No such request was made. After the war, Hagedorn developed diabetes himself. He took it stoically and remarked: ‘The sweetness of life gradually reduces. All that is left is renunciation and the consolation of religion’. He was a Renaissance man, compelling, cultured, knowledgeable; an impressive all-rounder and a feared debater. But he was also a humanist and generous benefactor. He died after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for many years on October 6th 1971.