Sir Frederick Grant Banting
Sir Frederick Grant Banting, KBE, MC, FRS, FRSC, co-discoverer of insulin, Nobel laureate, medical scientist, painter (born 14 November 1891in Alliston, ON; died 21 February 1941 near Musgrave Harbour, Newfoundland).
Sir Frederick Grant Banting, KBE, MC, FRS, FRSC, co-discoverer of insulin, Nobel laureate, medical scientist, painter (born 14 November 1891in Alliston, ON; died 21 February 1941 near Musgrave Harbour, Newfoundland). Banting is best known as one of the discoverers of insulin. Following the discovery of insulin, he became Canada’s first professor of medical research at the University of Toronto. Banting was also an accomplished amateur painter with links to A.Y. Jackson and the Group of Seven.
Education and Early Career
Frederick Banting was the last of six children born to William Thompson Banting and his wife, Margaret Grant. Of British descent and Methodist religious practice, the Bantings were an extended family of hard-working, straight-laced and prosperous farmers in the Alliston area, about 60 km north of Toronto, Ontario.
Banting enjoyed a normal boyhood on the farm. On the shy and studious side, he managed to scramble up a tough educational ladder, completing high school and entering the University of Toronto with the vague idea of becoming a Christian minister. After failing the first year of a general arts course, he shifted focus and was allowed to enrol in the faculty of medicine (where admission standards were not as high as they are now).
Banting was a quiet, unremarkable medical student, who achieved slightly above-average grades. He later claimed his medical education was extremely deficient, owing partly to the fact that his final year of studies was condensed. His class of 1917 was accelerated, graduating in 1916 because of the urgent need for doctors to serve in the First World War. As a student Banting had enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps; and upon graduation, was sent abroad to serve as a medical officer.
First World War
Frederick Banting worked in military hospitals in England, where he developed interests in surgery and research. In the summer of 1918 Banting was sent to France as a battalion medical officer. He saw heavy action in the last great battles of the war until being wounded by shrapnel at Cambrai in September. Captain Banting convalesced in England. He was awarded the Military Cross for his valour under fire, and returned to Canada in 1919.
Frederick Banting took a year of surgical training at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, but could not obtain a staff position at a Toronto hospital. He decided to establish a general practice of medicine and surgery in London, Ontario, in July 1920. Discouraged by the slow growth of his practice, he took a part-time appointment as a demonstrator in physiology at the University of Western Ontario.
Discovery of Insulin
On the night of 31 October 1920, after reading a routine article in a medical journal while preparing a talk to medical students, Frederick Banting wrote down an idea for research aimed at isolating an internal secretion of the pancreas that might prove to be a cure for diabetes — a substance long sought by other researchers. The next morning, he discussed the idea with F.R. Miller, a professor of physiology at Western, who advised him to seek support for his proposed research at the University of Toronto. On 17 May 1921, Banting began work under the direction of Professor J.J.R. Macleod and assisted by C.H. Best.
Banting's and Best's experiments in the summer and autumn of 1921 were crudely conducted and did not substantiate Banting's idea, which was physiologically unsound. Banting had left London and risked all of his meagre assets on the research in Toronto. However, he and Best did achieve favourable enough results treating some symptoms in diabetic dogs that Macleod approved further experimentation and an expansion of the research team.
In a pitch of feverish, often contentious, activity, with human lives and scientific immortality at stake, the Toronto experiments culminated in the winter of 1921–22 in the discovery of insulin. By the time the discovery was announced, in Washington, DC, on 3 May 1922, the research team consisted of Banting, Best, Macleod, James B. Collip and three other collaborators.
The Nobel Prize and Other Honours
Insulin was immediately and spectacularly effective: not a cure, but a powerful lifesaving therapy for diabetes mellitus. Frederick Banting was hailed as the principal discoverer of insulin because his idea had launched the research and because of his prominence in the early use of insulin.
He and his supporters also carried on a campaign to discredit his senior collaborators, Macleod and Collip, whom he thought had tried to take over the project and with whom he was temperamentally incompatible. Macleod was a cautious, skeptical scientist, Banting a blunt, aggressive enthusiast. For years, the importance of Macleod and Collip in the discovery of insulin was eclipsed by romanticized, misleading stories of heroic research by Banting and Best.
The Nobel Prize Committee in Sweden recognized the contributions of both Banting and Macleod in this important discovery. On learning that he was to share the 1923 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Macleod, Banting gave half his prize money to Best. Macleod gave half his prize money to Collip. Banting was awarded a lifetime annuity by the Government of Canada, was appointed Canada's first professor of medical research at the University of Torontoand was knighted in 1934. He was also made a Fellow of the Royal Society (London) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
The youngest man ever to receive the Nobel Prize in medicine, Dr. Banting became a popular hero of the 1920s and certainly the most famous Canadian. He was widely expected to conquer more diseases. These expectations weighed heavily on a deeply insecure, poorly-trained researcher desperate to prove that his insulin adventure was no fluke.
In the 1920s, his association with Best having ended, Banting turned to cancer research. In this field he achieved nothing but frustration. Strange ventures, such as exploration of royal jelly and an attempt to revive victims of drowning, went nowhere. Eventually the group of young scientists he supervised in his Department of Medical Research at the University of Toronto did do useful work on silicosis (an occupational lung disease) and other problems.
By the late 1930s Banting’s national prominence and enthusiasm for research had led to his becoming the effective head of Canada’s medical research effort. As the shadows of war again gathered, Banting became deeply interested in aviation medicine and problems of chemical-bacterial warfare, effectively launching Canada’s first research efforts in those fields.
Banting was Canada’s chief liaison with British research scientists in the early days of the Second World War. In February 1941, he decided to make another trip to England and arranged to hitch a ride on a Hudson bomber being ferried from Newfoundland to the United Kingdom.
After departing from Gander in bad weather, the plane developed engine trouble. It turned back and crashed by a pond in Newfoundland. Mortally injured, Major Sir Frederick Banting died before help reached the plane. There is no evidence to support stories that the plane had been sabotaged or that Banting’s mission was unusually important.
Although he possessed the shrewdness and intense sense of integrity and duty of his forebears, Frederick Banting had little training or experience as a scientist and was ill suited to wear the intense celebrity status that came with being hailed as the discoverer of insulin. He had been almost broken by the pressures of the insulin research, several times telling friends that he was considering suicide if he was not successful. The stress also led to the end of the great romance of his life — his relationship with Edith Roach, his childhood sweetheart and on-again, off-again fiancée.
Banting continued to have difficulty finding either inner harmony or outward grace. In 1924, he married the vivacious Marion Robertson, an x-ray technician who worked at the Toronto General Hospital. The couple soon discovered their marriage was a mistake — they had very different personalities and views about marriage. The couple had one child together, a son, William Robertson, who was born in April 1929. However, the marriage fell apart and they divorced in 1932, following allegations of adultery and abuse. Banting intensely disliked publicity, particularly after the newspapers published details of his sensational divorce.
In 1939, Banting married Henrietta “Henrie” Ball, a graduate science student at the University of Toronto who was working in his department. However, this brief second marriage ended with his death in 1941.
Some of his closest friends thought that Dr. Banting would have been a happier man if he had been able to marry his first love, Edith, and spend his life as a small-town doctor.
Frederick Banting did, though, find contentment in painting. As a member of Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club, Banting came to know most members of Canada’s Group of Seven school of landscape artists. He adopted their techniques, their genteel bohemian approach to life (often accompanied by male bonding and heavy drinking) and their intense sense of Canadian nationalism. Banting and A.Y. Jackson of the Group went on several sketching trips together, and Jackson’s influence was so strong that it is difficult to tell some of their pieces apart. Banting often talked about his desire to retire and spend his time painting.
In recent years, Banting's sketches and oils have regularly sold in the five-figure range. Like Banting’s medical career itself, the paintings reflect both natural ability and the artist’s good fortune in having been able to work with more talented associates.
During and after his lifetime Frederick Banting remained one of the world’s most famous Canadians. The very large international diabetes community expressed its gratitude for insulin by naming innumerable prizes, lectures, medals and other honours after Banting. Canadian schools and a crater on the moon bear his name, and he is always near the top of “most famous Canadian” polls. Banting House National Historic Site in London, Ontario, where he conceived his great idea, has been preserved as a museum and attraction, as has the Banting homestead in Alliston, Ontario.
Michael Bliss, Banting: A Biography, 2nd ed. (1992) and The Discovery of Insulin, 25th anniversary ed. (2007).