Dr. Charles Best: Blood serum research during the Second World War
By Jacqueline Lane, Program Coordinator Heritage and Membership
In honour of Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the Second World War, the following vignette was written by the Royal College’s History and Heritage Committee. This vignette was written not only to recognize the important contributions of physicians during the war, but also to honour all those who have made sacrifices for our freedom.
Dr. Charles Herbert Best (1899-1978) was a 19-year-old student of physiology and biochemistry at the University of Toronto when he enlisted in 1918 to serve during the Great War. While serving, he likely witnessed first-hand how war begets injuries on a scale seldom seen during the everyday practice of medicine. With high probability, these injuries involved considerable blood loss and a course of treatment dependent upon access to living whole blood donors. Dr. Best completed his studies upon his return to Canada, going on to achieve distinction as one of two research assistants who helped uncover linkages between pancreatic secretions and diabetes.
Shared winnings from The Nobel Prize in Physiology / Medicine (1923) for the discovery of insulin afforded Dr. Best financial comfort and scientific credibility; just six years later, at the age of 30, Dr. Best was appointed professor of physiology at the University of Toronto.
In 1939, on the verge of the Second World War, Dr. Best’s research interests turned to addressing the limitations encountered with transfusion medicine during the Great War. He and his team at Connaught Laboratories studied the properties of blood serum which led to the development of a process by which blood products could be collected, dried, and later reconstituted with sterile distilled water. In addition to his wartime clinical investigative work, Dr. Best successfully advocated for voluntary blood donations from the public to support injured military personnel overseas, and promoted the Canadian Red Cross as the organization to lead the national donation drive and blood bank repository.
Dr. Best’s work in the field of blood serum was instrumental in the successful treatment of war injuries during the Second World War. Of equal value, Dr. Best’s ability to connect disparate groups (the research community, the Canadian Red Cross, the Canadian government) to function cohesively towards a single goal (the war effort) is of lasting importance to the history of medicine in Canada.
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University of Toronto. (1924). Charles H. Best [Digital image]. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from https://insulin.library.utoronto.ca/islandora/object/insulin%3AP10103.
University of Toronto Libraries, Biography of Charles Herbert Best. Last retrieved May 2020 from: https://insulin.library.utoronto.ca/about/best
Canadian Red Cross. Human Serum Bottles. Last retrieved May 2020 from: https://www.redcross.ca/history/artifacts/human-serum-bottles
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