Frederick Banting liked to paint. Many of his early sketches were on the back of the cardboard used by his dry cleaner to keep his shirts stiff. He particularly enjoyed a rugged landscape, and would often sketch alongside the celebrated ‘Group of Seven’, a tight coterie of landscape painters who took inspiration from the spectacular backdrop of their back yard. Their backyard being Canada. Banting was Canadian born, as he was, on a small farm in Ontario, which is how many people in Ontario happen to be born. Ontario is Canada’s fourth largest province which is largely made up of acres and acres of arable land. What’s not arable land is thick forest. Anyway, Banting liked to paint and, whilst one of his paintings would later sell for $30,000, painting is not the reason why he came fourth in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s 2004 poll to formalise the favourite family meal-time debate of the “Greatest Canadians”, ever. Banting came fourth behind the politicians Tommy Douglas and Pierre Trudeau, and Terry Fox, who ran across the whole of Canada despite having only one leg. Which given how big Canada is, is a fine effort. No. Frederik Banting was a medical man, and in 1932 became the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine after becoming the first person to use insulin on humans.
Insulin as we know is what stops us all slipping into diabetic comas. Having set up his own medical practice, Banting took a job teaching part-time at the University of Western Ontario. In preparation for a talk about the pancreas he had picked through the work of a few scientists who suggested that diabetes was a result of the lack of a protein secreted by the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas. The English physiologist Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Shafer – a name that would compel any man to greatness – had called this hormone insulin. The problem was how to extract it. The islets of Langerhans are the regions of the pancreas that contain the hormone producing cells. There are about three million islets which are distributed in the form of dense routes throughout the pancreas each of which measures, on average, about 0.1mm. No surprise then that attempts to extract the insulin had run into the reeds. The problem seemed to be that the hormone was broken down by digestive secretions before they could get it out. Or something along those lines.
Reading the research Banting reckoned that the internal section of the pancreas would hold the key. Now Banting was also a qualified surgeon and so knew that certain arteries could be tied off. His idea was to clip a few arteries, cut off the blood and let the pancreas wither and die. What you’d be left with was the islets of Langerhans brimming with insulin. This would then enable an easy extraction. Job done. Banting scuttled off to see the Professor of Physiology at the University of Toronto, one John Macleod. Now Macleod was born in Clunie, a small village on Lake Clunie in Perthshire and being a Scot was suspicious of most things, more so if they cost money. Macleod was unconvinced that Banting’s idea would amount to much. Still, he eventually agreed to let Banting use his laboratory while he was away on holiday and in an un-Scot like act of support threw in two lab assistants and ten dogs on which to experiment. The two assistants – one called Best, one called Noble – flipped a coin to decided who should do the first half of the Summer with Banting, and who would do the second half. Best won, and in what turned out to be an astute decision, decided to pull the first shift. Banting ended up keeping him on for the whole summer and later shared half of the money, and much of the credit, he received for winning the Nobel Prize. A lesson then, for all young lab assistants.
As you might suspect, taking away the pancreas mimics diabetes. Having effectively rubber-banded the pancreatic duct and left it to die, Banting and Best were successful in extracting a syringe of insulin. They then whipped out the pancreas of the dogs, effectively turning them into diabetic dogs, and then injected them with the insulin. The results, as the Nobel Prize might suggest, were ground-breaking. They were able to keep a dog called Marjorie alive for the whole summer. The conclusion was obvious. Despite being a diabetic dog, Marjorie was able to stay alive because the injected insulin helped to lower her blood glucose. When a pale Macleod returned from his Scottish jaunt, he dourly pointed out a few flaws in the process. He did though, in a further un-Scot like show of largesse, bus in more dogs and order some better equipment. Sensing, perhaps, his own involvement in a ground-breaking medical advance he moved them into a bigger lab and started paying Banting a proper salary. A further round of experiments later, they quietly published their findings and set about finding someone who was up for it.
In Toronto General hospital a 14-year-old diabetic boy was in death’s departure lounge and with options limited he stepped up to receive the first injection of insulin. The problem was the impurity of the insulin, which had been extracted from an ox, caused the boy to have a severe allergic reaction. A bio chemist, a one James Collip, was dragged in to help pure things up, and Collip worked tirelessly to improve the extract. This he did, and the second injection was a success. The boy lived, although later died from pneumonia aged just 27. Still, that was thirteen years more than he would otherwise have had and he went down in history as the first human to be injected with insulin. What previously had been effectively a death sentence, being diagnosed with diabetes was henceforth, no longer as sticky an explanation for Doctors as it had always been.
Banting later died in a plane crash in Newfoundland 1941 en-route to England to help oversee operational tests on the Franks flying suit; the anti-gravity suit which counteracted the effects of high G forces on aircraft pilots which otherwise would cause them to blackout. Interesting, but sad.
Sir Frederick Grant Banting was knighted by George V and is, undisputedly, one of Canada’s all time greats.
It’s the obvious question then: So Banting’s fourth, who else?
- Tommy Douglas – Founder of Medicare, basically Canada’s NHS.
- Terry Fox – Rather impressive athlete
- Pierre Trudeau – Fifteenth Prime Minister
- Sir Frederick Banting
- David Suzuki – Environmentalist
- Lester B. Pearson – Fourteenth Prime Minister and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for helping sort out the Suez Canal crisis.
- Don Cherry – Ice hockey commentator
- Sir John Macdonald – First Prime Minister
- Alexander Graham Bell – Scientist, inventor and founder of the Bell Telephone Company
- Wayne Gretzky – Ice hockey legend. Father-in-law elect of the golfer, Dustin Johnson.
Three out of the ten Greatest Canadians, as it turns out, were actually born in Scotland. Hmm.