When you make a list of the greatest Canadians in history, certain names will always make the top of the list. There are of course people like Tommy Douglas and Terry Fox, as well as other names like John Candy or Harriet Brooks.
Another name, which is known to Canadians far and wide, and the world at large, is that of Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin.
A few weeks ago, I put up a playoff bracket of 32 individuals who had been dead for 25 years or more to see what who Facebook fans of Canadian History Ehx thought should be on the new five dollar bill from the Bank of Canada.
After thousands of votes had been cast over the course of several weeks, it came down to just one person that the majority of voters wanted on the new banknote. That person was Sir Frederick Banting.
In honour of his victory, we are doing a special episode on Banting, his life and the discovery that changed the world.
I had the pleasure of talking with Grant Maltman, the curator of Banting House, as well as Rebecca Redmond, a relative of Banting, who also has type 1 Diabetes. Their audio interviews will be sprinkled throughout this episode.
Frederick Grant Banting was born on Nov. 14, 1891 in a small farm house near Alliston, Ontario. The youngest of five children to William Banting and Margaret Grant, he would spend his youth in the community before heading off to Victoria College in Toronto in 1910. He would spend a year in the general arts program before failing out. That failure would change the world.
In 1912, he was accepted into medical school and would officially begin his training as a doctor in September of 1912.
For the next two years, Banting attended medical school until a shooting on the other side of the planet changed his priorities and his future. When the First World War broke out at the end of July 1914, Banting would attempt to enlist only two weeks later on Aug. 16. He was denied due to his poor eyesight, but he would go back again in October and try again. Once again refused, Banting did not give up and in 1915, he successfully joined the army. This is most likely because casualty numbers were rising and the war was not expected to end soon and the requirements for entry into the Army were relaxed.
Throughout the summer of 1915, he would train with the military before returning to medical school in the fall.
Due to the war and the dire need for doctors, Banting’s class of future doctors was fast-tracked through their studies, graduating in December of 1916, one year ahead of schedule. The day after graduation, Banting reported for military duty with the Royal Canadian Medical Corps. At the time, he was also engaged to Edith Roach.
At first, Banting was posted to the Toronto Base Hospital, before going to New Brunswick to continue his military training. By March 26, 1917, when he set sail for Britain, he had found himself promoted to the rank of captain.
Once overseas, Banting would serve in rear hospitals and aid stations along the front line in France. At the Battle of Canal du Nord, which happened at the end of September 1918, he would find himself wounded in the arm from shrapnel.
Despite the fact he could not use his good arm and was most likely in terrible pain, he continued to help other injured soldiers for a further 17 hours until he was finally taken away to be treated.
Thanks to his actions during the battle to save lives, he was awarded the Military Cross, a medal only 3,000 soldiers received during the First World War.
On Sept. 29, while in hospital, he would write to his mother in a letter that is written with his bad hand due to the injury to his good hand.
“My dearest mother. This letter will be short left hand. I was slightly wounded yesterday in the right forearm. Had operation last night and shrapnel removed from between bones. No fracture but unla bone damaged. I feel pretty good, only tired. I have just had a big, hot lovely dinner. Everyone is as kind as can be now please don’t worry. I am the luckiest boy in France. I don’t know where I am going. Address as usual. With love from Fred.
Returning home in 1919, Banting went back to work to resume his surgical training. He would study orthopaedic medicine and from 1919 to 1920, was the resident surgeon at The Hospital for Sick Children. Unable to gain a place on hospital staff, he decided to move to London, Ontario to set up a medical practice. A major reason for the move was that Edith lived near there teaching at the Interpol District Collegiate Institute.
While working at his medical practice, he also taught orthopaedics and anthropology at the University of Western Ontario to supplement his income.
From 1921 to 1922, he would lecture on pharmacology at the University of Toronto and would receive his medical degree in 1922.
Going back a couple years, Banting had been asked to give a talk on the pancreas at the University of Western Ontario on Nov. 1, 1920. To get up to speed on new developments, he began to read reports related to the pancreases and it was there he saw several reports by various doctors that suggested diabetes was caused by the lack of a protein hormone in the pancreas, which had been called insulin. It was believed that this protein helped the body control the metabolism of sugar and the lack of it would cause an increase in sugar in the blood. There had been attempts to extract insulin from ground-up pancreas cells but this was unsuccessful. The challenge for many doctors in the field now was to find a way to extract insulin from the pancreas prior to the destruction of the cells by an enzyme in the pancreas.
Banting then read a report by Moses Barron from 1920 that described the experimental closure of the pancreatic duct by ligature and this would further influence Banting in his thinking on the matter. This procedure caused the destruction of the cells that secrete trypsin, which breaks down insulin, but left the islets in the pancreas intact. Banting soon realized that this procedure could be used to extract insulin. He then approached J.R.R. Macleod, the professor of physiology at the University of Toronto, who provided him with facilities and a research assistant named Charles Best. Best and Banting then began to work on producing insulin through this new means.
The experiments began using living dogs at first, but by Nov. 1921, the quantities needed could not be obtained from dogs. Banting at this point realized that he could get insulin from a fetal pancreas. At the William Davies slaughterhouse, he removed the pancreas from fetal calves and found the extracts were just as good as those removed from dogs.
By December of that year, he had succeeded in extracting insulin from an adult pancreas.
For the next half century, beef and pork would be the main source of commercial insulin until genetically-engineered bacteria was used in the late-20th century.
With this new method at his disposal, Banting established a private practice in Toronto to treat diabetic patients. His first American patient would be Elizabeth Hughes Gossett, the daughter of the current Secretary of State. She would live until the 1980s thanks to this new procedure.
Banting decided to sell the patent on this new discovery of insulin production for $1, stating that it belonged to the world, not to him.
Today, when we look at the list of greatest Canadian inventions, insulin often ranks at or near the top. In 2007, in a CBC special poll, insulin was placed as the greatest invention in history.
For his work in the discovery and use of insulin, Banting would receive the Nobel Prize for Medicine, jointly with Macleod. To date, Banting is the youngest person in history to receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine. He would take half the money from the Nobel Prize and give it to Best, who had assisted him every step of the way. This was done in response to the fact that Banting felt MacLeod should not have jointly received the award, and that Best should have since he had worked with Banting day in and day out, while MacLeod was sceptical about the success of the project.
With this discovery and the Nobel Prize, Banting went from an obscure doctor to a celebrated Canadian and the honours quickly began to flood in. It was argued he was the most famous Canadian in the world and the pressure to help with more diseases was thrust upon him. This would put a great amount of pressure on Banting and some said that he would have been happier to remain just a small-town doctor rather than a world-famous and idolized individual.
In 1922, he was appointed as the Senior Demonstrator in Medicine at the University of Toronto. In 1923, he was appointed to the brand new Banting and Best Chair of Medical Research, which was funded by the Ontario government.
Also in 1923, the Government of Canada gave Banting a lifetime annuity to continue his medical work, amounting to $7,500 per year. In today’s funds, that would equal $111,000 per year.
On Aug. 25, 1923, 76,500 people came out for the opening day of the Canadian Exhibition in Toronto. Banting stood in front of the crowd and read a speech recognizing the work of Best and other colleagues, and thanking the governments for providing funds to support medical research. Banting’s parents were also in attendance. His mother, when asked if she was proud of her son, stated “not proud, thankful”.
In 1924, he would be granted five honorary doctorates from the University of Western Ontario, the University of Toronto, Queen’s University, the University of Michigan and Yale University.
It was in this year that he and Edith would end their long engagement as Edith had grown tired of waiting and both had grown apart.
That same year, he would marry Marion Robertson, an x-ray technician, with whom he would have one child named William, who was born in 1929 and lived until 1998. The couple divorced in 1932. As for William, he would go on to work for the CBC and BBC, creating wildlife documentaries. In 1970, he would be awarded the Best Canadian Documentary Film at the Canadian Film Awards in 1970 for Wild Africa, The Way It Was.
In 1925, the Banting Research Foundation would be created, providing funding to support health and biomedical research across Canada.
Around the same time that he had made his discovery of insulin, Banting would develop a strong interest in painting. His first pieces of art were on the back of the bard board in which his shirts were packed by the dry-cleaners.
As his renown grew, he would become friends with several Group of Seven artists, sharing their love of the rugged Canadian landscape. For the next two decades, Banting would be one of Canada’s best -known amateur painters.
He would say once, “the more I think of the city, the more I want to live in the country and the more I think about being a professor of research the more I want to be an artist.”
During his life, he created over 200 paintings.
In 1927, Banting would take part in an Arctic trip with Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson. It was on this trip that Banting realized that the crew and passengers on the Hudson’s Bay Company paddlewheeler, the S.S. Distributor, was responsible for spreading influenza along the Slave River and Mackenzie River, devastating the Indigenous populations there.
The journey began on July 7, 1927 when he received a wire asking if he wanted to take part in the journey. On July 16, he was setting off on the steamship Beothic.
On July 18, Banting would write “saw our first icebergs after breakfast, fog lifted about 10, numerous icebergs. Alex and I did pencil drawings of many of the larger ones.”
Later, Banting would write about a hike he took.
“A little waterfall had worn the cliff away leaving a more gentle slope. At this place, we climbed to the plateau, which was covered with sharp, jagged, broken rock on which not even moss could grow. After crossing a mile or so we looked down upon Fram’s Forid which was brilliantly illuminated by the midnight sun. Words fail to describe the majesty and beauty of the scene which met our gaze. Mr. Jackson and I lost no time in getting out our paint boxes.”
The trip would also open Banting’s eyes to the impact white settlers were having on the Indigenous people of the Arctic.
He would talk about this with a reporter from the Toronto Star after the trip, believing he was off the record, but the interview would be published nonetheless. This deeply angered Banting, who had promised the Department of the Interior he would not make any statements to the press without clearing them first.
The article quoted Banting as saying that the fur trade heavily favoured the Hudson’s Bay Company, who would buy $100,000 worth of fox skins, but only pay the Indigenous $5,000 in goods. The fur trade commissioner of the Hudson’s Bay Company criticized Banting for his statement and while Banting was angry at the betrayal of his confidence, he refused to retract his statement.
In his report to the Department of the Interior, he would reiterate his thoughts on the Indigenous situation in the North.
He would state, “infant mortality was high because of the undernourishment of the mother before birth” and that “the white man’s food leads to the decay of native teeth.” He would also state the following, “the gravest danger faces the Eskimo in his transfer from a race-long hunter to a dependent trapper. White flour, sea-biscuits, tea and tobacco do not provide sufficient fuel to warm and nourish him.”
In 1935, King George V would bestow upon Banting a very rare honour for a Canadian by knighting him. From that day forward, Dr. Frederick Banting would be Sir Frederick Banting.
In 1937, Banting married Henrietta Ball, with whom he would stay married to for the rest of his life.
In 1938, Banting would develop an interest in aviation medicine and begin to work with the Royal Canadian Air Force in researching the physiological problems encountered by high-altitude pilots.
During the Second World War, Banting would look at the issue of aviators blacking out due to high-g forces. He would work with Wilbur Franks to develop a G-suit to stop pilots from blacking out when turning or diving. He also worked on the treatment of mustard gas burns, going so far as to test the gas and antidotes on himself to ensure they were effective.
During the winter of 1941, Banting, who was now a major in the army, was told to go to Britain by the Canadian military so he could coordinate the military research of the Allies.
Sadly, on February 20, 1941, Banting was the passenger in a Lockheed L-14 Super Electra/Hudson plane when both of its engines failed as it left Gander, Newfoundland. The plane crashed in Musgrave Harbour, killing the navigator and co-pilot. Banting would die the next day from his wounds. He is buried at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.
After his death and for decades following it, Banting would continue to receive honours for his work with diabetes.
The S.S. Frederick Banting would set sail on Dec. 20, 1943. The 500-foot long ship cost $2 million to construct and was christened by Lady Henrietta Banting, who was in her fifth year of medical school at the time and was a private in the Canadian Women’s Army Corp. Dr. Best was also there at the ceremony. This was the first time the United States named a ship after a non-American. An exception was made for Banting’s service to humanity. The ship would sail from Jan. 19, 1944 to Dec. 18, 1945. In 1947, it was sold to a private owner and in 1969, was scrapped.
As for Lady Henrietta, she would graduate from medical school in 1945 and become a successful doctor researching cancer treatments.
Banting’s name would be put to the Banting Lectures, a yearly lecture series by experts in diabetes. Several places would receive his name including three schools in Ontario and one in British Columbia. Several tweets are also named for him. The Major Sir Frederick Banting Award For Military Health Research is awarded annually by the Surgeon General to the researcher whose work presented at the annual Military and Veterans Health Research Forum is deemed to contribute most to military health. The Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship Program awards $70,000 per year to researchers in health, natural sciences, engineering, social studies and humanities.
His honours don’t end there though.
Banting House, his former home in London, Ontario, is now a National Historic Site of Canada.
The Banting Interpretation Centre in Musgrave Harbour is named for him, as is Banting Crater on the Moon. The crater was named for Banting in August of 1973 when the International Astronomical Union met in Australia and decided that scientists from all fields could be honoured with craters on the moon. The crater is on the near side of the moon, measuring five kilometres in diameter and is between the sites of where Apollo 15 and Apollo 16 landed. In 1974, William Banting would say of the honour for his father.
“I’m delighted my family’s name is now on the moon. It gives you a bit of a weird feeling.”
The Flame of Hope would be lit by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1989. This flame will stay lit until a cure is found for diabetes and will only be put out by the researchers who discover a cure. The flame is located at Sir Frederick Banting Square in London, Ontario. On that same note, a time capsule was buried in the square in 1991 to honour the 100th anniversary of his birth. It will be exhumed if a cure for diabetes is found.
In 2004, Banting was chosen as the fourth greatest Canadian in history behind only Tommy Douglas, Terry Fox and Pierre Trudeau.
On Nov. 14, 2016, the 12th anniversary of his birth, he was also honoured with a Google Doodle.
I will end this episode
NHL Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke, boxer Buster Douglas, author Anne Rice, actress Elizabeth Perkins, actor Peter O’Toole, actress Mary Tyler Moore, comedian Jerry Lewis and singer Bret Michaels are just one of the people who owe their lives to Sir Frederick Banting and Dr. Charles Best and their monumental discovery.
No one can deny, Banting is a well-deserving person for the five dollar bill.
Information comes from Wikipedia, Banting House, University of Toronto, Canadian Encyclopedia,