Frederick Banting never knew he was on the road to saving countless lives
as he worried over the empty waiting room of his humble surgical practice
in London, Ontario. He was an unknown entity in London and patients were
few. What he did know was that he had a nagging interest and several
ideas concerning a fatal disease--diabetes. Banting's failure would lead him on the road to identifying insulin--the
life-saving hope of all diabetics, and a Nobel Prize in Medicine. Ironically, his success would be achieved in a discipline not of his choosing.
As Banting's practice struggled, the best and brightest physiologists of the day considered finding a treatment for
diabetes close to impossible. A disease that robs the body's
ability to burn body sugar for energy, diabetes forces the body to feed upon itself. Banting had a nagging hunch about what might be done. To adequately prove his hunch, Banting would have to give up his surgical practice and forge
blindly into the future in a humble laboratory in Toronto.
For a young physician supporting a family, this difficult decision was akin to career suicide. Debts and other financial troubles loomed for Banting. Banting loved to work deep into the night and it was on one of these that Banting was struck by an idea.
He reasoned that if the pancreas was destroyed but the nearby tangle of
tubes called the Islets of Langerhans were kept intact, the absence of digestive enzymes would allow the isolation of insulin.
With the help of his assistant Charles Best, Banting began
to experiment on the pancreases of dogs. Ironically, Banting was a lover of dogs ever since his farm days, and would suffer the misery of watching many dogs die for the sake of his research. Banting's goal quickly became finding a way to
isolate insulin from a dog's degenerated pancreas. Two sets of dogs were set up: those for which the pancreas would be removed and the other for which the pancreas would be purposely degenerated. The dogs with removed pancreases would show the debilitating effect of diabetes.
Results were promising as an extract of the dogs'degenerated pancreases were injected into the dogs without pancreases. The clinical condition of the dogs without pancreases improved remarkably. Hence, the discovery of insulin was born. Unfortunately, this procedure meant that many dogs had to be sacrificed to keep one diabetic
dog alive. Banting called this life-saving
pancreatic extract "isletin"...the name of which would later be changed to insulin.
But how was Banting to secure this precious insulin without having to kill more animals than it saved? This is where Banting's background on a farm helped. Banting realized, from his experience breeding cattle, that pure insulin tissue could be extracted from the pancreases of embryonic calves.
Banting and Best took to injecting themselves with insulin before testing it on their first human research subject. After establishing the safety of this crude form of insulin, Banting was ready for his first patient. In January of 1922, he injected it into a 14-year-old diabetic boy. The turnaround in his condition was both rapid and conclusive. A month later Banting would inject insulin into the veins of
a childhood friend, bringing about such an improvement in his health that friends and family thought it a miracle.
For his valiant effort, Banting was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1923. He was the first Canadian to receive the award. He divided his share of the prize with his invaluable assistant, Charles Best.
What is often overlooked about Banting is that he was an accomplished artist who signed his drawings and paintings with the alias "Frederick Grant". Art was his escape from the rigors of late night research and the misery of failed experiments.
Banting's life came to a tragic end in 1941 on a military mission for the Canadian Army Medical Corps during World War II. Banting's plane crashed near a frozen lake in Newfoundland. An exemplary life was over at the age of 49.
It is interesting to note that Banting realized how his initial failure at a medical practice in Ontario led him on the road to a Nobel Prize. Like most heroes and discoverers, Banting showed the quality of perseverance, intuition, and courage in the face of what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles. Banting wrote in 1940: "...had I not failed in my one year at London, I might never have
started my research work..."
Nobel prize winner, accomplished painter, knighted by the queen, and a
recipient of the Military Cross for bravery during World War I, Frederick Banting
was a saver of lives.