Diabetes Legends: Eva Saxl – who made her own insulin during WWII

Eva Saxl was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1940 at the age of 19. Alongside her husband, Victor, Eva was able to survive World War II by making her own insulin.

The risks were vast, but when Eva’s supply of insulin ran out her options were sparse. Subsequently she and Victor embarked on a path that would earn them worldwide acclaim from the diabetes community.

This is the story of how the Saxls made their own insulin which not only kept Eva alive, but the lives of an estimated 400 people.

Evacuating Czechoslovakia

Eva and Viktor fled Czechoslovakia, which had been occupied by the Nazis, in 1940. They made the boat trip across the Suez Canal to China, where they settled in Shanghai.

Eva became an English teacher, while Victor found work as an engineer. Eva’s type 1 diagnosis came when she began experiencing frequent thirst. One night she collapsed at the dinner table and was then put onto an insulin regime.

When the pharmacies closed down following increasing Japanese occupation of China, Eva lost any legal access to insulin. She considered procuring the drug through the black market, but resisted after one of her friends died from injecting contaminated black market insulin.

After managing to get a copy of “Beckman’s Internal Medicine”, a book which detailed how Dr. Frederick Banting and Charles Best discovered and purified insulin in 1921, Eva and Victor attempted making insulin themselves.

Homemade insulin

Banting and Best extracted insulin from the pancreases of dogs in 1921, but with animal pancreases and money scarce, the Saxls knitted stockings and sold them in order to purchase water buffalo pancreases.

After finally producing a bottle of brown insulin in a small laboratory lent to them by a Chinese man, the Saxls tested the insulin on rabbits.

The risks included not knowing if the pancreases were contaminated with bacteria, and if the bacteria could be removed without destroying the insulin. The Saxls also didn’t know just how potent the insulin was and if could induce hypoglycemia.

Eventually, Eva tested the insulin on herself, and it worked. Soon after, Eva and Victor began working on making enough insulin to medicate everyone with diabetes living with them in the Shanghai ghetto, which was roughly around 400 people.

Insulin clinic

Victor immediately took the insulin bottle to a nearby hospital after it worked on Eva. He administered it to two diabetics close to death, who both survived, with one going on to reportedly name his son Victor.

The Saxls went on to set up a clinic at a nearby hospital, where they would give patients 16 units a day. This was all they could ration per person, but it kept everyone alive.

Rather than requesting payment, Eva asked people to donate money to the man who had lent them the laboratory they used to produce the insulin.

American liberation

When the Americans liberated the Jewish ghetto Eva and Victor were staying in, they were given a case of clear insulin to distribute to those who needed it.

The Saxls then left China for New York City, where their achievements made them famous: President Eisenhower invited them to the White House, a Hollywood documentary was made about them and Eva became a spokeswoman for the American Diabetes Association.

During a time when diabetes awareness was grossly misinformed, Eva’s television appearances were revolutionary in detaching the stigma attached to diabetes during the 1940s and 1950s.

Following Victor’s death in 1968, Eva moved to Santiago, Chile to be with her brother, who had emigrated there during the war. She worked to supply underprivileged children with medicine.

Eva Saxl died in 2002 in Santiago.

The information in this blog was adapted from dLife.com and diabeteshealth.com

Picture credit: dLife.com

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Jack Woodfield

Jack is Deputy Editor of Diabetes.co.uk and the award-winning Low Carb Program. He works hard, plays fair and sleeps whenever possible. He also has type 1 diabetes, doesn't mind being called a "diabetic", and once won a talent show for dancing to Dario G’s 1997 hit “Sunchyme”.

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