Though many people seek inspiration in bed, few find it. Fortunately this was not the case for Dr. Frederick Banting, who at 2:00 AM, on October 31st, 1920 woke and bolted from his simple frame bed in search of paper and pencil. He had just conceived an idea fated to save the lives of millions.
His brief note reads as follows: “Diabetus: Ligate pancreatic ducts of dogs. Keep dogs alive till acini degenerate leaving Islets; try to isolate the internal secretion of these to relieve glycosurea.” We can forgive the doctor’s spelling errors when we realize that these twenty-five words provided the key to the discovery of insulin.
Until insulin was brought into general use, Type I, or as it is sometimes called, childhood onset diabetes, doomed its sufferers to brief and miserable lives. A diet low in carbohydrates and high in fat and protein might prolong life by a year or two, but ultimately the victim’s body wasted to death-camp proportions, followed by diabetic coma and death.
Curiosity about this discovery and the man who made it led me to London Ontario on a wintry February day, to visit the Banting House National Historic Site. I soon found myself seated on the very bed in which Dr. Banting found inspiration eighty-seven years ago. I didn’t have to sneak under a barrier to do this. Instead my guide encouraged me to try out the mattress, as many have done before me. She told me that some visitors are moved to tears, realizing that here was born the breakthrough that saved their lives or those of loved ones.
I learned that Banting was trained as an orthopedic surgeon, but lack of opportunities in Toronto resulted in his move to London. He earned only four dollars for his first month in practice and his first patient was a soldier who wished a prescription for liquor. Banting gave it to him, later remarking: “I … considered myself rather highly trained for the bar-tending business.”
Banting initially knew little about diabetes but because of his impecunious circumstances agreed to give a lecture on the subject of carbohydrate metabolism. He had spent the afternoon researching the topic in the medical school library the day before his famous nocturnal revelation. Ironically, a successful medical practice would likely have precluded the need for Banting to do this lecture and he may never have had his fateful insight. He subsequently moved back to Toronto where in collaboration with Charles Best he was able to successfully utilize his idea to isolate and purify insulin.
Banting House is located at the corner of Queens Avenue and Adelaide Street in the historic Ontario city of London. Outside the home, in adjacent Banting Square, visitors can see a statue of Banting erected in 1989, depicting the physician at about age thirty. Nearby is the Flame of Hope, lit by the Queen Mother, Elizabeth, on July 7th, 1989 .
The interior of the house looks much as it would have in the 1920’s. Throughout the home are period pieces of furniture, interspersed with items which formerly belonged to Banting, such as his desk, his medicine cabinet and of course his famous bed.
Also on display is a replica of his Nobel Prize Medal and documents, co-awarded to Banting and Dr. John Macleod for their work on insulin in 1923. With typical generosity, Banting split his share of the prize money with his assistant, Charles Best. He later sold the patent for insulin to the University of Toronto for one dollar, passing up the opportunity for huge personal gain from his discovery.
One room of the house is set up as a World War I field hospital operating room. This reminds us that Banting served in the First World War after his accelerated graduation from the University of Toronto School of Medicine in 1916. He reached the rank of Captain and received the Military Cross for his heroic action in September, 1918. While as a medical officer in the 46th Canadian Battalion he suffered a shrapnel wound to his right arm when he braved enemy fire to reach a group of wounded soldiers. Despite a significant injury it’s reported he continued treating the wounded for seventeen hours before seeking aid for himself. It’s interesting that a classmate of Banting’s, Dr. Norman Bethune, also became famous for his selfless service in a very different war zone.
Photos on the wall remind us that Banting was also actively involved in research during the Second World War. He deliberately inflicted a mustard gas wound to his arm to try out a new treatment, in case the Nazi’s should use this agent. He also coordinated work on an early version of the G-suit, using water-filled trousers to prevent blackouts in pilots involved in high G maneuvers. Some feel his death in a plane crash in 1941 in Newfoundland was the result of sabotage of his aircraft by German agents.
A display of paintings in Banting House reveals a very different side of Sir Frederick (knighted for his discovery in 1934). He was a good friend of A. Y. Jackson, a member of the Group of Seven, who mentored him in his technique. They would often paint together, roaming as far as the eastern Arctic and Banting’s rustic landscapes stylistically are reminiscent of Jackson’s, but not without originality and merit in their own right.
Other displays in the museum depict how Banting’s office may have looked in the 1920’s. His original medicine cabinet sits in the corner of this room. Nearby Banting had had a sink installed and set up a small lab, which has been reconstructed. Another room houses many of the awards and honors Banting received during the course of his career.
One presentation tells us that the first person to receive insulin was a teenager named Leonard Thompson, who in January 1922 received injections of insulin extract. The effect was dramatic. Another striking display presents before and after photos of a little boy who insulin seemingly resurrected from a cadaverous skeleton to a plump tricycle-riding toddler. His letter to Dr. Banting, inscribed in a childlike scrawl, touchingly thanks the physician for his discovery.
I left Banting House with a strong sense of pride for a major Canadian medical discovery and a sense of affection for a great and selfless Canadian. Everyone, physicians and diabetics especially, should make a point of visiting London while in southern Ontario to experience the special ambiance of what has become an international shrine.
If You Go…
The Banting House National Historic Site
442 Adelaide St., North
tel. (519) 673-1752
fax (519) 660-8992
London Tourist Information Centre
696 Wellington Rd., South
London, Ontario N6C 4R2
Tel. (800) 265-2602
Fax (519) 661-6160
All photos by George Burden