Who Knew! Still Easily Amazed by the Greatness of Man

After reading, The Aviator’s Wife, over Christmas break, I became enthralled with Charles Lindbergh and the greatness that one man could possess. Lindbergh not only was the first  man to cross the Atlantic in a single flight, from New York to Paris, but he also worked with Henry Ford in aviation developments for the Second World War in the States, during a European tour he helped the German Airforce, and was awarded the Order of the German Eagle by Hitler, and he visited the astronauts of Apollo 8, before their launch to the moon, all the while being captured in newspapers as a very dashing man. How is it that one man can possess so many great abilities, and be so influential in the world during a single life time?

This past Wednesday, on a visit to Banting House, with Museology class, once again I was amazed by the greatness of one man, in that of Frederick Banting. I had a driven past Banting House many times before on my way home, noting its beautiful architecture, and the odd flaming sculpture out front, in a rough end of the city of London. What I failed to see was the wonderful story that laid inside the house and in the life of Banting, which our tour guide/the curator of  Banting House Grant passionately told us about.

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Frederick Banting  was much more than the “diabetes guy,” he was in my opinion one of these influential great men, that ultimately left a great legacy. Banting was born on November 14, 1891, in Alliston Ontario. He began his university education in the arts program at the University of Toronto, but soon realized that it wasn’t for him and transferred to the faculty of medicine. When the war broke out in 1914, he immediately tried to enlist, but was rejected due to his poor vision. The following spring, because of his medical background, he was recruited in the Canadian Army Medical Service, and posted at Ramsgate, England. As he displayed his greatness as a surgeon, he was promoted amongst the ranks, becoming a Captain he was transferred to the front in France. On September 28, 1918, his right arm was wounded from a German shell. Although badly injured, he continued his duty and work to help the other injured, until he passed out from a large loss in blood, and was taken to the hospital. After the war ended that winter, he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions, the second highest decoration, as only 2, 877 were given out. This was the first part during the tour, when I realized the greatness in character that Banting possessed, as he did not give up, he remained determined, and also strove to protect the lives of others.

Following the war, and the completion of his medical degree, Banting opened his own practice at 422 Adelaide Street, in London, after purchasing the yellow brick house from Rowland Hill, a shoe merchant in the city. Being a kind man, Banting allowed the Hills to remain in the house until their new home was finished construction, thus Banting only actually occupied three rooms in the home. The front room, acted as his doctor’s office, the little telephone room, served as his pharmaceutical room, and he slept in a little bedroom upstairs. In their mission to preserve Banting’s legacy the museum has maintained these three rooms, to the period of when Banting occupied the house. The rest of the house, is still beautifully maintained, and displays exhibits in relation to the life of Banting and diabetes. One room in the house, is dedicated to his war service and has surgical instruments displayed from the World War One era.

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When Banting opened his practice in July 1920, he surprisingly didn’t receive his first patient until 28 days later, who wasn’t actually ill by any means. Banting wrote in his journal, “My first patient wanted a liquor prescription. He was an honest soldier who had friends visiting him and he wanted to give them a drink. I gave him the prescription and considered myself rather highly trained for the bar-keeping business.” In his first month, Banting only earned $4.00, not a very significant income for such a decorated doctor. In October that year, when Western University was looking for medical instructors, Banting was given the position of Instructor of Surgery, which would provide him with a higher monthly salary, but was not an ideal position for someone who didn’t enjoy public speaking. At the end of the month, he was asked to give a lecture on the pancreas and diabetes, Banting having little idea on the subject, did a large amount of research and prepared a lecture. That night before bed he read an article in November Issue of Surgery, Gynaecology and Obstetrics, entitled, “The Relation of the Islets of Langerhans to Diabetes with Special Influence to Cases of Pancreatic Lithiasis.” This little (not so) light reading, had huge impact on Banting as diabetes had been around since 1552 BC, with no cure. He awoke at 2am with the idea that insulin was the answer to a possible cure, and wrote down his thinking, 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.” What scientists and doctors had been trying to find a cure for thousands of years, Banting was able to miraculously answer after a day of research and a restless night sleep. This was the second moment in the tour that I was amazed at the greatness of Banting’s mind, and how a single epiphany moment, changed the lives of millions of people globally. 

Banting finished up the school year at Western, and with the school not having the facilities to conduct further research into his great idea, he headed for the University of Toronto. After much persuasion with Professor J.J.R Macleod, Banting was allowed to use the university’s medical research lab for the summer, was allocated a graduate student to assist him and dogs to test his methodology on. On May 17, 1921, Banting and Charles Best set to work to find a cure for diabetes through testing extracts on the dogs. With no answer at the end of the summer, they enlisted the help of J.B Collip, a biochemist, who helped them in purifying insulin. Their test on January 23, 1922, on a fourteen year old boy, suffering from diabetes, was a success, as the boy recovered. The impossible was made probable, and Banting’s fame became known around the world. In 1923, he and Macleod were awarded the Noble Peace Prize; which at the time Banting was 32 years old and the following year he was knighted by King George V.

Similarly to Lindbergh, Banting following the discovery couldn’t keep out of the spotlight, for the rest of his life. With the greatness of mind that he possessed he focused his attention into military and bacterial warfare research, working on top secret projects for the Canadian military. Until his early tragic death in 1941, when his plane crashed on a flight to Great Britain in an isolated part of Newfoundland, claiming the life of the fifty year old, but not his legacy. As diabetes is still such a prevalent disease today, and a complete cure has not been determined (that odd sculpture out front of Banting House, is the “Flame of Hope” and will not be distinguished until a cure is found) almost everyone is touched in some way by the disease. The visitor stories that Grant shared with us in Banting’s bedroom, were extremely touching and emphasized the impact that one man has had on millions of people. The “Flame of Hope” not only represents the fight for a cure by scientists and doctors, but those individuals and their families who are fighting everyday against the disease.

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(Me sitting on Banting’s bed- the wooden frame was his)

The last moment of Banting’s greatness, came at the end of the tour, upon hearing that in his spare time (which is hard to believe he actually had in his busy life) he painted and was a friend of Group of Seven painter, A.Y Jackson. Seeing Banting’s landscape paintings; which were actually pretty good, as an art history student not only made me really jealous of his abilities, but once again brought me back to the initial question of how one person could have so many talents? Although examining his character Banting was just a shy farm boy, whose determination and hard work, in the end brought him great rewards, even though he probably would have preferred to enjoy a quiet life, in which he could help a few people a day, spend time with his family and paint in the serenity of nature.

If you have not been to Banting House, I highly recommend a visit if you are in or visiting the London area. As the house on the corner of Adelaide and Queens holds such a wonderful story behind its yellow brick exterior.

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