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Diabetes research pioneer Kirtley dies at 96

August 25, 2010

Diabetics who control their disease with pills instead of frequent insulin injections can thank Dr. William R. Kirtley, a pioneering diabetes researcher who died over the weekend on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.

Kirtley had spent several months in failing heath before his death Sunday, said his daughter, Jane Kirtley. He was 96.

Kirtley was part of a team of researchers at Eli Lilly and Co. in Indianapolis who made groundbreaking discoveries in the decades after World War II that helped turn a disease that before the 20th century almost always caused a painful, suffering death in weeks or months into a a disorder that could be managed for decades without serious problems.

"My dad was proud of his work and what it meant for the lives of people with diabetes," Jane Kirtley said Wednesday.

Dr. Kirtley directed the Lilly Laboratory for Clinical Research and was part of a team that developed pills that helped Type 2 diabetics handle what little insulin their bodies produce better and help the pancreas produce more of the protein that helps break down sugars into energy.

The development was critical. Although researchers discovered injectable insulin could control diabetes several decades before, the treatments required frequent painful injections with needles that had to be sharpened by hand and sterilized in boiling water for at least 20 minutes. Now, some patients could take pills instead.

Kirtley's team also made several advancements with insulin, and he was honored by the American Diabetes Association with the Banting Medal in 1971, the honor named for the Canadian doctor who shared the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1923 for the discovery of insulin.

Kirtley was a native of Crawfordsville. He earned his medical degree from Northwestern University in 1941. He served as a doctor in the Pacific in World War II, once being transported between ships in a typhoon to save a man who needed an emergency appendectomy, his daughter said.

He went to work for Eli Lilly after his military service, retiring from the pharmaceutical giant in the late 1970s after his first wife died. He then took up golf and painting.

"He kept going really strong into his 90s," Jane Kirtley said.

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