Frederick Banting

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Sir Frederick Banting
Sir Frederick Banting

Sir Frederick Grant Banting, KBE , FRSC (November 14, 1891February 21, 1941) was a Canadian medical scientist, doctor and Nobel laureate noted as one of the co-discoverers of insulin.

Banting was born in Alliston, Ontario, Canada. After studying medicine at the University of Toronto and graduating in 1916, he served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps during World War I.He won the military cross during the war. After the war, he returned to Canada and between 1919 and 1920 completed his training as an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. In July 1920 he began to practice medicine in University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario. There, on the night of 31 October 1920, during his routine reading of articles in a medical journal, he wrote down an idea for a method to isolate the internal secretion of the pancreas, the crucial step needed for effective treatment for diabetes. Up to that point, all methods to obtain a useful secretion which could be safely administered to humans had proved unsuccessful.

Dissatisfied with his practice and fascinated by his idea, Banting left London and moved to Toronto. There, on 17 May 1921 he began his research at the University of Toronto, under the supervision of professor John Macleod. He was assigned a single assistant to help him, the young graduate student Charles Best.

During a summer of intense work, Banting tested his idea, performing operations on dogs to tie up their pancreatic ducts, which resulted in a partial atrophy of the pancreas. The pancreas would be then removed some weeks later, with the hope that it would then contain a high concentration of uncontaminated secretion of the pancreas. An extract would then be made from it and administered to diabetic dogs, to test whether it could treat their diabetes through lowering the blood sugar level.

An oil painting of Sir Frederick Banting in 1925 by Tibor Polya, now in the possession of the National Portrait Gallery of Canada
An oil painting of Sir Frederick Banting in 1925 by Tibor Polya, now in the possession of the National Portrait Gallery of Canada

After some months of work, it appeared to Banting that his method was working, and that he could keep diabetic dogs alive with his extract. He enthusiastically reported his findings to Macleod, who was away on his summer holidays during this time. In retrospect, some claim that Banting's experiments were crude and did not prove the validity of his idea, which was not physiologically sound in any case. However, the results encouraged further intensive work in the fall, with direct participation by Macleod and the chemist James Collip. The use of dog's pancreas proved impractical and was soon abandoned in favour of using pancreas taken directly from calves and cows. The technique of tying pancreatic ducts was also discarded, with all the efforts concentrated on developing methods to extract a useful extract from a normal pancreas. The efforts of the team in 1921-1922 culminated in developing the ability to obtain a useful extract, named insulin.

This was one of the most significant advances in medicine at the time. Insulin was not only discovered, but put into mass production in a matter of months. Hence almost immediately it began to extend the lives of millions of people worldwide who suffered from the endocrine disease diabetes mellitus that could not be treated and had a very poor prognosis. People suffered from problems with fat and protein metabolism, leading to blindness and then death only a short time after the onset of the illness.

In 1923 Banting and Macleod would receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Banting shared the award money with Best, believing that Best deserved the prize more than Macleod, who in turn shared his award money with Collip. Banting gained great esteem in Canada as the first Canadian to achieve worldwide scientific fame. The Canadian government gave him a lifetime grant for his research. In 1934 King George V bestowed a knighthood on him, making him Sir Frederick Banting.

In the 1930s, war was looming in Europe, and Banting was alarmed by the rise of Nazi Germany. He started several war research efforts, including playing a major role in the creation of the first production G-suit, which would be used by Royal Air Force pilots during the war. He was also involved in research in biological weapons, both in terms of countermeasures and methods for mass production of anthrax, although the exact nature of this research remains unclear even today.

At the pinnacle of his brilliant career, Banting was killed on February 21, 1941, when the Lockheed Hudson patrol bomber he was travelling to England in crashed shortly after takeoff from Gander, Newfoundland. The exact purpose of his flight to England remains a mystery, but it appears likely he was going to meet with counterparts in an effort to convince them to produce biological weapons as a last-ditch weapon in case of a German invasion of England. Another possibility for the trip was Banting's desire to work on the front lines. He had been denied his request to do so a month earlier, as Canadian officials believed he would be more useful back home. It is a testament to Banting's strong will that he was able to dress the pilot's wounds before he succumbed to his own injuries.

During his lifetime he was never fully comfortable with the medical establishment of the day. He had always been an avid amateur painter and in an attempt to alleviate the anxiety he felt around the medical community he befriended the legendary Canadian artists The Group of Seven. Many of his surviving canvases bear a striking resemblance to the Group of Seven's body of work.

He is interred in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto. His name is immortalized in the yearly Banting Lecture, given by an expert in diabetes and by the creation of Banting Memorial High School in Alliston, ON; Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School in London, ON; Sir Frederick Banting Alternative Program Site in Ottawa, ON and École Banting Middle School in Coquitlam, BC. He was married twice and had one son from his first marriage, William Banting. William died in May, 1998 in British Columbia. Orphaned at a young age after the death of his mother, he later worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and kept some distance from his father's legacy.

In 1994 Frederick Banting was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. In 2004, he was nominated as one of the top 10 "Greatest Canadians" by viewers of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. When the final votes were counted, Banting finished fourth behind Tommy Douglas, Terry Fox and Pierre Trudeau.

Ironically, during the voting for "Greatest Canadians" in late 2004, controversy rose over the future use of the Banting family farm in New Tecumseth which had been left to the Ontario Historical Society by Banting's late nephew, Edward in 1998. The dispute centered around the future use of the 100 acre property and its buildings. It had not been resolved as of August, 2005.

See also


  • The Discovery of Insulin by Michael Bliss, University of Chicago Press, 1982, ISBN 0226058972.
  • Banting as an Artist by A.Y. Jackson, Ryerson Press, 1943.
  • Discoverer of Insulin - Dr. Frederick G. Banting by I.E. Levine, New York: Julian Messner, 1962.
  • Frederick Banting by Margaret Mason Shaw, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1976.
  • Sir Frederick Banting by Lloyd Stevenson, Ryerson Press, 1946.
  • Banting's miracle; the story of the discoverer of insulin by Seale Harris, Lippincott, 1946.

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