September 4, 2020

“A Mysterious Something”: Curatorial Thinking and the Discovery of Insulin

Dr. Madeleine Mant

While preparing for my fall teaching, I have returned repeatedly to the story of the summer of 1921. The experiments of Frederick Banting and Charles Best throughout those sweltering summer months at the University of Toronto led to the staggeringly important discovery of insulin. Biochemist James Bertram Collip, co-discoverer of insulin, referred to the discovery – at first an unnamed active principle derived experimentally from dog pancreases – as “a mysterious something.” Collip developed a purification process for the pancreatic extract that rendered it safe for clinical trials and use in humans. The journey to insulin involved organization, patience, curiosity, frustration, and the sacrifice of many lab rabbits and dogs. Most importantly, however, the discovery required creativity.

Chasing a “mysterious something” is a feeling that will resonate with many researchers and educators. Perhaps the goal is, à la Collip, a specific chemical compound, but in a broader pedagogical sense this “something” could be the building of community in online classrooms, determining how best to transfer activities designed for in-person delivery to an asynchronous modality, or developing appropriate formative and summative assessment strategies. There are myriad unknowns and challenges this fall as we head back to school.

This fall in Introduction to Anthropology of Health, my students will be assigned an unessay project. The term unessay was coined by Dr. Daniel O’Donnell1 to describe an assignment asking students to throw out the ‘formula’ for essay writing and focus instead on their own interests (their own ways in). Unessays, according to O’Donnell, are assessed upon how compelling and effective they are. Educators who have employed this strategy2 have had students deliver pieces of creative writing, play scripts, Buzzfeed lists, artwork, songs, tabletop games, comic strips and more. The open choice for modalities engages curiosity and creativity, while building choice into assignments aligns with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). One pillar of UDL is expression – latitude in how students submit their work – and the unessay provides ample flexibility.

During this upcoming semester we will celebrate the centennial of Frederick Banting’s original idea, which woke him suddenly on October 31, 1920 and eventually led to the discovery of insulin. My class will be introduced to the timeline of insulin from 1920 (great idea) to 1923 (Nobel prize) and be prompted with the following:

Consider the discovery of insulin, the individuals involved, and the history of diabetes prior to and after the discovery. Select three key events, people, objects, etc. that you think best illustrate/celebrate/explain the discovery of insulin. What led to this discovery? How did this discovery change the world?

The topic of insulin and diabetes is broad; this assignment allows students to find their own way in to a topic. Learning about health is inherently intimate – perhaps the students know someone affected by (or themselves have) diabetes. This assignment provides the means to explore and express those personal connections within a wider geographical and historical context. This is the chance to tell the story of one body or many bodies. Investigating insulin also encourages ownership and pride in the discovery – this is a Canadian story. 

Curatorial thinking, using the Selecting, Archiving, Sense-Making, and Sharing (S.A.S.S.) framework, aligns well with an unessay about insulin. Selecting pieces of evidence – artifacts, articles, events – requires careful sifting through a wealth of potential sources. Students may work individually or in small groups to produce their unessays, taking ownership of their learning and navigating the creation of online community. Thinking critically through sense-making, students will determine the ideal means to communicate what they have learned. I anticipate that projects will be presented in a salon-style celebration at the close of the semester, ensuring that the creative work is shared and experienced by classmates.

Curatorial thinking empowers learners to follow their instincts – the unessay format is a demonstration of trust by the instructor. This, of course, requires clear expectations – it is the instructor’s responsibility to clearly outline how the unessay succeeds in being compelling and effective. This challenge is particularly exciting to me – the unessay champions creativity on the part of the instructor too. I anticipate a fascinating journey and look forward to returning to this topic in December to report back on the process; curatorial thinking, after all, is active and formative.

This fall instructors and students alike will be chasing after that “mysterious something” as we adjust to new teaching styles, formats, and means of connection. Let’s get creative. I am ready to experiment.

Citations and Further Reading

1 – Daniel Paul O’Donnell, “The unessay,”

2 – For other interpretations, examples, and reflections on how the unessay has been employed and assessed, please follow these links:

Marc Kissel, “The UnEssay,”

Marc Kissel, “Creative Unessay Project,”

Andrew Gillreath-Brown, “The Unessay,”

Emily Suzanne Clark, “The Unessay,”

Michael Ullyot, “The Unessay,”

Ryan Cordell, “Unessay Projects,”