Frederick Grant Banting

First published in the Barrie Advance, 28 November 1999

Earlier this month, Health Minister Allan Rock outlined a five-year, $115 million Canadian Diabetes Strategy.

An estimated two million Canadians have diabetes. It is the country’s fastest growing preventable disease – with about 60,000 new cases diagnosed each year.

Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in Canada. Its annual economic cost is estimated to be $9 billion. This is today’s toll for a disease that can be controlled. 

Imagine what the costs, both human and economic, would be, but for the insight and determination of a Simcoe County farm boy by the name of Banting.

Frederick Grant Banting was born near Alliston, Ontario on 14 November 1891. He was the youngest of William Thompson and Margaret Grant Banting’s six children. His mother was the first white child born in Alliston. 

Known as Fred or Freddie, Banting showed little early promise as a scholar. He slogged through high school in Alliston. He entered the University of Toronto in September 1912 and graduated on 9 December 1916 with his M.B. or bachelor’s degree in medicine. 

The next day, Banting reported for military duty in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. 

On 28 September 1918, Captain Banting was wounded during the battle for Cambrai, France. Despite this, he continued to offer medical aid. For his “energy and pluck,” he won the Military Cross. 

Banting received his discharge from military service in the summer of 1919. After a stint at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, he opened a practice in London, Ontario on 1 July 1920.

His first patient arrived 28 days later. He only wanted a prescription for alcohol. In that first long month, Banting made all of $4.00. It was not a promising beginning.

Later that fall, having prepared for a university lecture on the pancreas, Banting retired for the night. At 2 a.m. on 31 October 1920, he got up and penned these words: 

“Diabetus [sic]
Ligate pancreatic ducts of dogs. Keep dogs alive
till acini degenerate leaving Islets. Try to isolate
 the internal secretion of these to relieve glycosurea.”

Banting then returned to his bed unaware of the impact this late-night musing would have upon him and millions of diabetics the world over. 

The mysterious internal secretion of the pancreas had evaded some of medicine’s brightest minds. The enthusiastic young doctor was not to be deterred.

Banting took his idea back to the University of Toronto. There Professor J.J.R. Macleod, head of the department of physiology, predicted that it would “go up in a pack of smoke.” Nonetheless, he consented to supervise the experiments. 

Banting began work at the university on 17 May 1921 assisted by Charles Herbert Best. The 22-year-old Best had only just received his B.A. in physiology and biochemistry.

Their experiments involved the tying off of the pancreatic ducts of dogs followed later by the removal of the pancreas. By August their work began to show some promising results. 

On 23 November 1921, Banting was confident enough of the extract that they were calling “isletin” that he injected himself.

The next month, Macleod invited biochemist J.B. Collip to join the team. It fell to him to purify the extract for human use.  

Isletin was first used in the treatment of diabetes on 11 January 1922. It was injected into the emaciated 65-pound body of 14-year-old Leonard Thompson. The initial results were indifferent.

Young Leonard received an injection of Collip’s purified extract on 23 January. This time, the result was little less than miraculous. Still, the extract did not cure, but rather  controlled the disease. 

The life-saving discovery was first announced in Toronto on 11 February 1922. Before this, diabetics faced a slow, but sure, wasting death. 

By May 1922, “isletin” had been renamed “insulin” to reflect the extract’s origins in the islets of Langerhans of the pancreas. By that fall, insulin was undergoing clinical testing throughout North America.  

Banting was the hero of the hour. Insulin was hailed as one of the greatest medical discoveries of the century. 

There was glory enough to share. Sadly, professional jealousies and real and imagined personal slights drove a wedge between Banting and Macleod and Collip. 

Banting and J.J.R. Macleod were named co-winners of the Nobel Prize in physiology on 25 October 1923. Banting was the first Canadian to win this most prestigious award. He generously shared his half of the $40,000 prize with Charles Best. Macleod did likewise with J.B. Collip. 

As early as that fall of 1923, Banting began distancing himself from diabetes. Speaking in London, Ontario, he applied “for a divorce from insulin...” 

Life after insulin was not easy for Banting. There would not be a second great discovery. As Professor Michael Bliss points out in Banting: A Biography, he was “never going to find ‘something big by himself.’ He was never going to find anything better than insulin.”  

In 1937, Banting joined the National Research Council. As war clouds gathered, he expressed grave fears about the potential use of biological weapons.  

Banting was a key figure in setting up the Aviation Medical Research Committee on 27 June 1939. Banting’s most important war work was to assist in the development of a world class aviation medicine program at the University of Toronto.  

However, as Bliss observes in The Canadian Encyclopedia Plus, Banting’s “own research was trivial, for he was not in fact a skilled or well-trained scientist. The burden of his fame weighed heavily on an insecure but determined man, leading to a turbulent personal life and considerable unhappiness.” 

During that lonely, frustrating London summer of 1920, Banting cultivated a love of painting. It became his chief relaxation and an escape from the burdens of his fame. 

In 1927, he met Group of Seven painter, A.Y. Jackson. The friends made many sketching trips together. Banting showed competence, even promise. He often stated that he wanted to retire at age 50 and take up painting. He never got the chance. 

On 20 February 1941, just before 8 p.m., T-9949 – a two-engine Lockheed Hudson bomber – left Gander, Newfoundland with Major Sir Frederick Banting on board. It crashed near Musgrave Harbour soon after take-off. 

Banting held on until about noon the next day. A broken rib had punctured his left lung. He was dead at 49.

Banting was survived by his second wife, Henrietta Ball, and his 11-year-old son, William Robertson, from his first marriage. Banting’s earlier marriage to Marion Robertson had ended in divorce in 1933.

In the year before his death, Banting wrote: “The greatest joy of life is to accomplish. It is the getting, not the having. It is the giving, not the keeping.”

Banting gave the world the idea of insulin – an idea that has saved millions of lives.

Rightfully, in the words of the 1954 plaque erected in his honour, Sir Frederick Grant Banting “lives on in the hearts of diabetics and in the minds of scientists the world over.”