BORN: Alliston, Ontario • 14 November 1891
DIED: near Musgrave Harbour, Newfoundland • 21 February 1941
Untangling the real influence of Fred Banting is tricky business indeed. Was he a rare genius whose brilliance saved the lives of millions ? Or was he a right-place-at-the-right-time chap, who falsely took credit for the work of others and never achieved much on his own?
On the whole, Canadians have chosen to believe the former, preferring to exalt Banting as a hero rather than condemn him as an opportunist. If the fawning legends about him were all true, however, Banting would belong much higher on this list.
The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between: Banting was a remarkably ordinary doctor who had one or two extraordinary ideas. In ideal circumstances, one of those ideas changed the world.What cannot be doubted is that, in 1922, a small laboratory at the University of Toronto produced an extract that prevented almost certain death when injected into the blood stream of diabetics.
The extract, insulin, quickly became the standard treat¬ ment for diabetes. Here was a breakthrough of colossal significance: tens of thousands of Canadians faced death from diabetes, as did millions more worldwide. The insulin discovery would go down in history as Canada’s greatest medical innovation.
Right in the middle of the triumph was Fred Banting, an uncomplicated son of small-town Ontario. Banting was an undistinguished young surgeon in London, Ontario, who, after the First World War, was having trouble finding patients.
He was working part- time as a medical lecturer and researcher when, in October 1920, he conceived a way of isolating a pancreatic hormone that all diabetics lacked. Scientists had theorized about this hormone’s existence for many years, but all attempts to locate it had failed.
At the University of Toronto, scientists were sceptical about Banting’s ambitious ideas, but Professor J.J.R. Macleod undertook to provide research space for Banting in the spring of 1921. Macleod also assigned research assistant Charles Best to work with Banting.
In a short time, Banting and Best showed promising results using a primitive form of insulin on dogs. They had difficulty improving the recipe for the extract, however, until Macleod and biochemist J.B. Collip became involved in the research.
In January 1922 the first clinical tests on humans were strikingly successful: the symptoms of the disease retreated fully in the face of insulin. When news of the medical miracle was leaked to the press, the world’s gaze became fixed on Banting; after all, people reasoned, he had the idea for diabetes research in the first place.
For the doctor who had not yet turned thirty-one, it was heady stuff indeed. Banting became a national hero overnight. Soon he was the most famous Canadian ever: he won dozens of prestigious scientific awards, capped by the Nobel Prize in 1923. He scored a closetful of honorary degrees, a lifetime annuity from the Canadian government, his own research institute at the university, and a knighthood in 1934.
But insulin and the fame it brought soon became a kind of prison for Banting. He found the international acclaim and national celebrity status tiresome—he plainly preferred being called “Fred Banting” to “Sir Frederick.” Within two years of the big breakthrough, he quit diabetes research altogether.
Furnished with resources beyond his wildest dreams, however, he embarked on a series of ill-fated research efforts, each designed to hit another scientific home run. But with precious little real research experience, Banting struck out again and again.
At times he wondered privately if his own role in the diabetes discovery had been a fluke, yet he stopped at nothing to petulantly discredit the role of Macleod and Collip, whom he despised for attempting to take some of the credit. Overall, the most famous Canadian of the 1920s and 1930s was frequently a frustrated, bitter man.Banting died tragically in a wartime plane crash in 1941.
Before and after the diabetes discovery, he lived a life of respectable ordinariness.It was interrupted, however, by that one spark of inexplicable inspiration that led to the pathbreaking diabetes research.The insulin discovery, like so many other medical break¬ throughs, was doubtless the product of several minds.
A good case could be made that Banting was not the brightest of the research team, that he understood the least about diabetes, and that his scientific career after the discovery was the least distinguished. All the same, the one ingredient that could not be removed from the historical formula for insulin’s discovery was Fred Banting.