In honor of both National Diabetes Month and the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, I wanted to share with you the story of a man whom we all owe a debt of gratitude: Dr. Frederick Banting.
Some of you may know this, but World Diabetes Day was chosen to be on November 14 because it is Dr. Banting’s birthday. He was born on November 14, 1891, which meant this year he would have been 118 years old. He grew up in Ontario, Canada, and graduated from the University of Toronto. Before he delved into the world of endocrinology, he started off his medical career in orthopedics. But he had also developed an interest in diabetes, after hearing about some research done by the earliest researchers in the field, Drs. Naunyn, Minkowski, Opie, and Schafer, who had first reported on insulin coming from the Islets of Langerhans in the pancreas.
If you aren’t familiar with it already, check out the book The Discovery of Insulin, by Michael Bliss, a great resource and insight into how this life-saving medication was discovered in 1922. For a quick glimpse, you can also visit the University of Toronto’s Timeline on the Discovery of Insulin, which marks — milestone by milestone — how the research came together, was initially publicized as a “diabetes cure,” and then finally distributed as a treatment for diabetes around the world.
What you might not know is that Dr. Banting was bestowed the honor of the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1923, which he shared with Dr. JRR MacLeod, Professor of Physiology at the University of Toronto and the benefactor of the research at the University of Toronto — not with Dr. Charles Best, the 22-year-old medical student who actually co-discovered insulin. This oversight incensed Dr. Banting, who shared his award money with Dr. Best. That year, the Canadian Parliament granted him a Life Annuity of $7,500 (a lot in those days!). Then in 1928, Banting gave the prestigious Cameron Lecture in Edinburgh. He was appointed member of numerous medical academies and societies in his country and abroad, including the British and American Physiological Societies, and the American Pharmacological Society.
But Dr. Banting had no delusions of what insulin was. In a Nobel lecture that he gave in 1925, Dr. Banting said: “Insulin is not a cure for diabetes; it is a treatment. It enables the diabetic to burn sufficient carbohydrates, so that proteins and fats may be added to the diet in sufficient quantities to provide energy for the economic burdens of life.”
Drs. Banting and Best went on to work at what was named Banting and Best Institute at the University of Toronto, which is now the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research. Dr. Banting didn’t stop just at diabetes. At the Institute, he also worked on silicosis, cancer, and the mechanism of drowning and how to counteract it. During World War II, he also became interested in medical problems connected with flying, such as blackouts.
OK, so he was a brilliant researcher. What about Dr. Banting the man? He married in Marion Robertson in 1924, and they had one son, William, but divorced 8 years later. He remarried in 1932 to Henrietta Ball, and he was knighted in 1934 (!)
However, he met a tragic end. As a young man, he had served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and had re-enlisted for World War II. In 1941, he died in an airplane crash due to a mechanical failure in Newfoundland.
In a letter written by his son following the lighting of the eternal flame in London, Ontario, William describes his father:
“His biographies will tell you that he could be headstrong and stubborn and a very tough man to cross. But he was also fiercely loyal to his friends, colleagues, and war comrades. My rather was also kind and gentle — especially with animals and children — who loved him. He received grateful letters from thousands of children with diabetes which he would read, late at night, with soft tears in his eyes. He knew insulin was not a cure.“
Insulin is not a cure, but it’s a pretty good start. And during this Thanksgiving holiday, I’d like to pause to say “thank you” to a very important person in all of our diabetic lives.