Charles Herbert Best (1899-1978) is well known as the co-discoverer of insulin. After his work on insulin with Banting in 1921-2, Best was in a difficult position. Even though he was only a medical student, he had been, to most people, Banting’s co-worker. Yet until Banting’s death Best was almost written out of the story of insulin. For example, he was not invited to the 10th anniversary celebrations in Toronto. This may have been due to the animosity of Banting who, in the words of Bliss, ‘never credited Best with any specific ideas and sometimes thought of him as his equal partner, at other times as a kind of officer’s batman’. After Banting’s death Best had almost free rein to magnify his own part in the discovery of insulin and he became obsessed with showing that he and Banting had been equal partners and that he deserved the Nobel prize instead of Macleod.
He was born in West Pembroke, Maine where his GP father had a practice which straddled the US-Canadian border. In 1915 he moved to Toronto where he did a BA degree. In 1918 he enlisted in the Canadian army and after the war completed a degree in physiology and biochemistry. After he graduated, he spent the rest of the 1920s in England where he did a PhD with the physiologist Henry Dale (1875-1968). This research led Best to the discovery of histaminase, a histamine inactivating enzyme. He received his doctorate from the University of London in 1928. While in London he made lifelong friends of Robert Daniel Lawrence and Joseph Hoet. Best succeeded Macleod as professor of physiology at University of Toronto in 1929.
Best and others had noted that after removal of the pancreas, and despite the use of insulin, the livers of dogs became swollen with fat. With his colleagues J. M. Hershey, Elinor Huntsman, and others, he investigated the cause of these fatty livers and found choline to be one factor preventing the development of fatty livers (a lipotropic factor). This was an important discovery since, when fatty livers do develop as a result of a deficiency of choline or related factors, fibrotic changes and, finally, cirrhosis may follow.
While he was with Dale, Best recognised the need for an anticoagulant to stop the blood clotting during in vitro experiments. The first work he did on his return to Toronto was to organize a team to explore the sources of heparin and test its effectiveness in preventing thrombosis. This was done with the clinical investigator being the surgeon Gordon Murray (1894–1976), one of the originators of haemodialysis for which a reliable anticoagulant was essential. This time, unlike insulin, there was no doubt that Best was the originator and driving force behind the project. He was later nominated unsuccessfully for the Nobel prize for his work on choline and heparin.
With the outbreak of World War II, Best continued his research interest in blood. He established the Canadian project for supplying dried blood serum to the wounded overseas and personally worked collecting blood from volunteers. In 1937 with Norman B.Taylor, he wrote the widely-used textbook The Physiological Basis of Medical Practice which went through 9 editions in his lifetime and was used by generations of medical students, me included.