Sir Frederick Grant Banting

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Sir Frederick Grant Banting


Canadian Physician and Physiologist

Frederick Banting, along with Charles H. Best (1899-1978), discovered insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas that regulates sugar in the blood. This discovery led to the treatment of diabetes, a fatal disease. For the discovery of insulin, Banting won the 1923 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, the first to be awarded to a Canadian.

Born November 14, 1891, near Alliston, Ontario, Canada, Banting was the youngest of five children of William Thompson Banting, a farmer whose parents were Irish immigrants. Banting attended the University of Ontario with the goal of becoming a Methodist minister, but changed to medicine and completed his degree in 1916.

After graduation, he was immediately drafted into the Canadian Medical Corps as a lieutenant during World War I. In 1918, while on the battlefield in France, his right arm was severely wounded by shrapnel, but he continued to attend to wounded men despite his own injury. In 1919 the British Government awarded him the Military Cross for bravery.

Returning to London, Ontario, in 1920, Banting set up a surgical practice. During the first year, however, he had only one patient. To help supplement his income, he took a job as lecturer in surgery and anatomy at the University of Western Ontario and became fascinated with the whole concept of medical research.

One sleepless night, while preparing for a lecture on how the body metabolizes carbohydrates, he came upon the work of two early researchers who found that when the pancreas of a dog was removed, the animal developed diabetes. However, when a small area of cells, called the islets of Langerhans, was preserved, the animals were normal. The studies gave Banting an idea of how he could establish the role of the pancreas in diabetes. He would tie off the pancreatic ducts of the dogs, preserving the cells of the islets. After 6-8 weeks, he would make an extract of the cells and inject it into dogs made diabetic by complete pancreas removal.

Banting traveled to Toronto to talk to J.J.R. Macleod (1876-1935), an expert of carbohydrates. Macleod was not impressed, but Banting persisted and convinced him that he could prepare an extract and give it to dogs that had been made diabetic through surgery. After six months of persuading, Macleod gave Banting a laboratory and provided him with an assistant who knew how to do analysis. That assistant, 22-year-old Charles Best, had just finished an undergraduate degree in chemistry.

Banting and Best performed the experiment. They chopped up the cells of the islets of Langerhans and injected the extract, which they called isletin—later insulin—into dogs with surgically removed pancreases. The dogs recovered. To avoid surgery to get insulin, they used the glands of fetal calves from the slaughterhouse and injected the dogs that were made diabetic by removal of the pancreas. Macleod, who had been on vacation during these experiments, was pleased with the work and gave Banting a position and enlisted James Collip (1892-1965), a Ph.D. in biochemistry, to assist.

In 1922 the researchers tested insulin on 14-year-old Leonard Thompson, who had suffered with diabetes for two years. The use of insulin and a regulated diet enabled Thompson to live for 13 more years, when he died in an accident. The university contracted with the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly to produce insulin.

In 1923 the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine was awarded to Banting and Macleod. Banting was furious that Macleod had a part in the award and not Charles Best, who had worked so diligently with him. The reason given was that Best did not have a doctorate at the time and Nobel prizes are only given to credentialed scientists. Banting gave half of his prize to Best. Macleod then gave half of his prize to Collip.

Banting received much praise and was given an annuity by the Canadian government. In 1923 he became head of the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research at the University of Toronto. He was knighted by the British Crown in 1934.

Not content with these successes, Banting launched into new areas of research on cancer, silicosis, and the effect of flying at high altitudes on the body.

Banting married in 1924 and had one son. The unhappy marriage ended in divorce in 1934, and in 1939 he married a technician from his laboratory at the university. He became very interested in art and collected paintings by Canadian artists.

When Canada entered World War II in 1939, Banting volunteered for service. He was killed in an airplane crash off the coast of Newfoundland on February 21, 1941, while on a medical military mission.


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Sir Frederick Grant Banting

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