Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
University of Toronto Archives, Frederick Grant Banting and Charles H. Best, A1978-0041/001(53)
Frederick G. Banting could probably sense that the meeting wasn’t going well.
He was in the office of J.J.R. Macleod at the University of Toronto in the autumn of 1920, presenting his idea for an experiment intended to isolate an anti-diabetic substance from the pancreas to treat diabetes, a disease that, at that time, invariably proved fatal. Banting was shy and hadn’t been “a good talker in formal situations at any time in his life,” according to Michael Bliss’s Banting: A Biography (McLelland & Stewart, 1985). And because the twenty-nine-year-old was no expert on diabetes, the “presentation of his idea must have been halting and uncertain.”
Macleod, on the other hand, was a world renowned expert on the subject who’d been lured to the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto in 1918. With stiff formality—a result of Macleod’s own shyness—the Scottish professor responded with cautious skepticism. He systematically detailed the work of scientists who had been searching for a treatment for diabetes for years. Although he was not exactly scoffing, to Banting it seemed as if Macleod was asking: “If the most accomplished medical researchers at the best institutions in the world have not succeeded, how will you?” Although he warned that the odds against success were enormous, Macleod said that even negative results would be of scientific value and offered Banting lab space and some dogs for his experiment. Disheartened at the lack of enthusiasm, Banting returned to London to consider his options, but this initial encounter with Macleod laid the groundwork for one of the most important discoveries in medical history—as well as a tumultuous relationship between the two men.
Born on the family farm near Alliston, Ontario, in 1891, Banting studied medicine in Toronto, then served as an officer in the Canadian Medical Army Corps during the First World War. While he was stationed near Cambrai, France, he earned the Military Cross for bravely continuing to attend to the wounded for twelve hours after he’d himself been struck by shrapnel—the first of many occasions when his commitment to his work took precedence over his own personal health or well-being.
At the war’s conclusion, he interned as a surgeon at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children before setting up a private practice in London in the summer of 1920. Business proved so slow, however, that he started giving lectures at the University of Western Ontario part-time just to make ends meet. A brooding personality throughout his life, Banting suffered sleeplessness—and tended towards excessive smoking and drinking—at times of great stress or unhappiness. But it was in one such sleepless night, when he was reading a journal article to prepare for a lecture, that inspiration struck. He realized that if he were to ligate the pancreatic ducts of dogs, thus preventing the damaging effects of pancreatic fluid, he could isolate and extract the islets of Langerhans to create an injectable treatment. He had faith in the validity of his idea and in his abilities, so within months of returning to the deleterious situation of his London life after his meeting with Macleod, Banting decided to gamble on a future in medical research in Toronto in May 1921.
In addition to dogs and lab space, Macleod arranged for Charles H. Best to serve as Banting’s assistant before promptly leaving for a summer-long vacation. The twenty-one-year-old Best had only finished the final examinations for his biochemistry degree a day before beginning work with Banting. But, as his favourite aunt had succumbed to diabetes, Best’s determination matched Banting’s, and the two made an effective collaborative partnership. Working around the clock, Banting and Best cooked meals over bunsen burners and slept in the lab. They endured financial difficulties, too, with Banting selling his car and Best resorting to canvassing door-to-door to ask dog owners to donate (or sell) unwanted dogs so that their promising experiments could stretch beyond the original allotment of time and resources.
On July 30, their work paid dividends when one of their canine subjects that laid near-death responded almost immediately to an injection of pancreatic extract by raising its head and wagging its tail. Further tests confirmed a dramatic reduction in its blood sugar levels. Banting and Best were overjoyed, but when Macleod returned from his vacation he remained cautious and skeptical.
He discovered blind-spots and shortcomings in their experiments and notes, due to Banting and Best’s inexperience, and he asked them to repeat the experiments several more times. In December 1921, Macleod also enlisted Dr. James Bertram Collip, an experienced biochemist from the University of Alberta, to help refine the quality of the extracts.
Already bristling that Macleod’s questioning of his notes was an impugnation of his personal integrity, Banting never approved of Collip’s presence. The rocky relationship between Banting and Macleod began to break down completely. “He was a man of strong feelings,” William Banting later told the CBC about his father, Frederick Banting. Stubbornly, Banting tended to hold a grudge if he felt he’d been slighted or wronged. To him, Macleod seemed an overbearing presence. In retrospect, Bliss confirmed that Macleod “never held Banting’s ability or judgment in particularly high regard.” Yet as generations of pupils could attest, though Macleod could be “a sympathetic and stimulating worker” he also demanded the highest quality work possible. Macleod was so dedicated to the cause that he abandoned his own research and turned over almost his entire lab staff to making insulin.
When the team presented their findings for the first time to a meeting of the American Physiological Society on December 30, 1921, it did not go well. Whether it was his uneasiness before audiences or a feeling that he was not the equal of the other scientists in the room, Banting did not perform well. There were a large number of questions from the audience, mostly relating to methodology, that Macleod did his best to answer. Afterward, Bliss suggests, Banting convinced himself that Macleod hadn’t let him answer because the Scot was deliberately trying to steal credit for everything he’d accomplished.
Moving on to the clinical testing stage of their work, Banting and Best had a couple of unsuccessful experiments on human patients before achieving the results they desired. In late January 1922, Leonard Thompson, a fourteen-year-old charity patient at Toronto General Hospital who had been lingering near death was given insulin treatment and was reinvigorated and restored to health. The next presentation of their findings earned a standing ovation in May 1922.
Word of Banting and Best’s work spread rapidly in academic circles and on the front pages of newspapers. People suffering diabetes flooded to Toronto from all over the world to seek the miraculous treatment. For example, Elizabeth Evans Hughes, the teenage daughter of the American Secretary of State, arrived that summer weighing only 45 pounds and barely able to move. In five months of insulin treatment, she was restored to a healthy 105 pounds and lived a productive life until the age of seventy-three.
Banting Institute, College Street . City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 7025.
Although Banting and Best could’ve profited enormously from their discovery, they sold the patent rights for the production of insulin to the University of Toronto for one dollar—although according to a 1977 CBC interview, Best claimed they never actually received payment—so that their discovery would be available to all diabetics. But Banting was honoured in other ways. In addition to numerous academic prizes and countless honorary degrees he was awarded by universities all over the world, the Ontario government established the Banting and Best Chair of Medical Research—housed in the university’s brand new Banting Institute—and appointed Banting its first director; the federal government provided him a lifetime annuity of $7,500; and he was knighted in 1934.
In 1923, news came that Banting and Macleod were to be the first Canadian recipients of the Nobel Prize—an even greater honour because so few win it the first time they’re nominated. Yet Banting was outraged that the despised Macleod would be included in the honour but not Best, to whom he gave equal credit for the discovery.
According to Nobel committee rules, however, the 1923 award could only be given to those specifically mentioned in the nomination made by August Krogh, a leading Danish biomedical scientist who’d stayed with Macleod while seeking insulin treatment for his wife. The Nobel committee’s evaluators had difficulty deciding whether Banting alone or Banting and Macleod ought to receive the award, but eventually determined that without the Scot’s supervision and guidance, the young and talented Banting’s successes would’ve been impossible.
Bliss recounted the sentiments Banting aired to a friend: “I told him that I would not accept the Prize; that I was going to cable Stockholm that not only would I not accept but that they…could go to hell.” Eventually, his friend convinced him that more important issues than hurt feelings were at stake and that his acceptance would garner attention for all Canadian scientists. As a compromise, Banting decided to accept the prize and split his share of the $40,000 with Best (as Macleod did with Collip).
In the decades to follow, however, Banting never reconciled with Macleod and, as his influence at the University of Toronto grew, their conflict became embroiled in the pettiness of university politics. Banting’s friends tried to blacken Macleod’s reputation and created lingering questions about his integrity. In 1928, Macleod returned to Scotland, where he died in 1935.
Banting’s discovery made him a celebrity, and the media reported all aspects of his personal and professional life. The accolades and attention became a burden, and, as Banting told a cousin, he longed for “the ordinary life.” Success haunted Banting. Whether through self-questioning about his worthiness for the honours he’d received or the weight of the public’s expectations, he felt enormous pressure to achieve another medical miracle.
He threw all his energies into work. But, apart from supervising important work, he never again achieved anything to match his early success. On his way to Britain to discuss his lab’s research into aviator health in support of the war effort, Banting died in a Newfoundland plane crash in late February 1941.
Portrait of Dr. Sir Frederick Banting [ca. 1929] (left). City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8079. Portrait of John James Rickard MacLeod (right). University of Toronto Archives, A1978-0041/014(35)