Professor Bliss, who taught at the university from 1968 to 2006, published “The Discovery of Insulin” in 1982. His account upset the commonly held wisdom that the discovery had mainly been the work of two inexperienced researchers from the countryside: Dr. Frederick Banting, a surgeon, and Charles Best, a recent college graduate who had yet to enter medical school.
The Nobel was awarded only to Dr. Banting and J. J. R. Macleod, the head of the university’s physiology department. Most earlier accounts viewed Dr. Macleod as undeserving of the honor, placing him on an overseas holiday while Dr. Banting and Mr. Best labored away.
But using newly released documents — including lab notes and contemporaneous papers that the university had long suppressed to avoid embarrassing the researchers — Professor Bliss detailed a far more complex, if no less acrimonious, story, revealing that the discovery was indeed a team effort by the three and, to varying degrees, others.
While chronicling the infighting among the researchers, “The Discovery of Insulin” also illuminated the science of endocrinology. Shelley McKellar, a professor of medical history at Western University in London, Ontario, who studied under Professor Bliss, said the book, like all of his work, was written in clear, nonacademic prose that made the subject accessible to the general public.
“Deep down he was a writer,” said Professor McKellar. “He always tried to disseminate his research to the widest possible audience.” She noted that he would speak not only to medical conferences but also to women’s social clubs in church basements.
In an essay he wrote in 2004, Professor Bliss said his shift to medical history had been due in part to his family — his father was a small-town doctor on the shore of Lake Erie in southwestern Ontario — as well as “a kind of midlife…