Sir Frederick Banting (1891-1941) is undoubtedly a national hero in Canada, but his achievements also reached a global scale. Banting’s co-discovery of insulin – the treatment for diabetes – continues to save countless lives from what once was a deadly disease.
In 2004, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) held their ‘Greatest Canadian’ series, which included a nationwide vote. Banting was voted fourth out of the top ten Greatest Canadians, ranked behind healthcare founder Tommy Douglas, cancer activist Terry Fox, and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Furthermore, Banting’s date of birth, November 14th, has been commemorated as World Diabetes Day.
Not only was Banting a gifted scientist, he was also a competent painter and artist, befriending and travelling with the famous Group of Seven artists. With Remembrance Day approaching, it is also fitting to note that Banting served in both World Wars.
Banting’s story is one that I believe is not well known outside of Canada. This is truly surprising, considering the immense prevalence of diabetes that is – thanks to Banting – treatable, but unfortunately on the rise.
Coming from modest beginnings, Banting was born and raised on a farm in Alliston, Ontario, just 20 kilometres from my own hometown. As a young boy, Banting had a friend named Jennie who, sadly, died from diabetes. This was surely a difficult experience for Banting at such a young age, and is believed to be one of the inspirations for his research on diabetes later in his scientific career.
Banting attended the University of Toronto, and graduated from medical school in 1917. He then decided to enlist, and was accepted into the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Banting proved to be a war hero during the Battle of Cambrai on the Western Front in 1917, when shrapnel from an explosion seriously injured his arm. Ignoring his acute pain, Banting continued to treat injured soldiers, despite being urged to get medical attention for himself. This act of bravery under fire earned Banting the highly prestigious award of a Military Cross.
After the war, Banting became a surgical resident (and also tried his hand at lecturing), at the University of Western Ontario; he also opened a family medical practice. But he did not really excel at either of these. However, after preparing for a lecture, scientific inspiration struck him in the middle of the night in the fall of 1920. He then set out to begin research on diabetes in the spring of 1921. With the assistance of recent graduate Charles Best, biochemist J.B. Collip, and ‘supervision’ from physiologist and Professor J.J.R. Macleod, the discovery of insulin and its use as a treatment for diabetes was a great success by the fall of 1921. Banting’s main goal was simply to help people suffering from the disease; he did not pursue science for economic gain. In fact, the patent for insulin was sold to a pharmaceutical company for only $1.
It is no surprise that Banting and Macleod were honoured with the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1923. Banting was the first Canadian to receive a Nobel Prize (see Time magazine from 1923), and he remains the youngest Nobel Laureate in the field of Medicine. Banting shared his award with Best, and Macleod felt inclined to follow suit and share his with Collip. Further recognition came to Banting in 1934, when he was knighted by King George V, and became ‘Sir’ Frederick Banting.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Banting was determined to serve his country again. In February, 1941, he prepared to fly to England under his liaison position for British and North American medics. Travelling as a passenger in a Lockheed Hudson bomber plane with two other gentlemen and a pilot, within about 30 minutes after take-off both of the engines failed. The plane crashed near Musgrave Harbour, on the coast of Newfoundland. Stranded in the extreme cold, Banting tragically succumbed to his injuries from the crash the next day, aged just 49. Only the pilot survived.
There was some evidence of sand and other materials found wedged in parts of the plane’s engines. It has been speculated that, clearly, someone did not want the passengers of this plane to make it to their destination.
It is difficult to convey everything about Banting’s life within the limits of a blog post, but suffice to say that he was an important figure who led a fascinating and accomplished life. It is a shame that his career ended so tragically and suddenly, and we can only wonder what more he could have achieved for science and humankind had he lived longer. I hope his contributions to science and his impact on Canadian history and the world generally never go unrealized.
Sir Frederick Banting’s life and legacy are commemorated at the Banting Homestead and Heritage Park in Alliston, Ontario, at the site of his birthplace. This site is administered by the Sir Frederick Banting Legacy Foundation. An Annual Banting Legacy Week is held in November leading up to World Diabetes Day, consisting of events, guest speakers, and tours, which celebrate Banting’s legacy and raises awareness of diabetes.
For more information about this site, Banting, and the work of the Sir Frederick Banting Legacy Foundation, you can visit:
Kianna Gnap is a Masters student in the History Department at Kingston University