November 14 marks World Diabetes Day because it is also the birth date of Canadian scientist Sir Frederick Banting, who is the subject of today’s Google Doodle. Banting is the co-discoverer of insulin and the first to use insulin on humans to treat diabetes. He was awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize in Medicine with John James Richard Macleod and is still the youngest recipient of the award in his field.
Banting was also a painter and military veteran, serving in World War I. He was knighted by King George V in 1934 and died in 1941 at age 49. Banting was married twice, to Marion Robertson from 1924 to 1932 and to Henreitta Ball from 1937 until his death. He had a son, William, with Robertson, in 1928.
Here is a look at Banting’s life and career.
1. At Age 32, Banting Became the Youngest Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine
When Banting won the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, he was only 32 years old. Banting shared his portion of the award money with his colleague, Dr. Charles H. Best. However, the Nobel committee decided to also honor John James Richard Macleod.
A few years before receiving the award, Banting became interested in diabetes and read papers by other scientists on the subject. They theorized that diabetes was caused by the lack of a particular protein hormone secreted by the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas. Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer dubbed this protein “insulin,” and it was believed that insulin controls sugar metabolism. To treat diabetes, scientists had to figure out how to provide insulin from the pancreas without it being destroyed first.
While Banting was trying to solve this problem, he read another paper by Moses Baron from 1920. Baron wrote about closing the pancreatic duct by ligature, which would leave the islets of Langerhans intact and destroy trypsin-secreting cells, while not destroying the insulin. Insulin could then be extracted from the islets of Langerhans.
Initially, Bunting and Best extracted insulin from living dogs, but Banding realized in 1921 that you could get insulin from the fetal pancreas. As History.com notes, Bunting and Best discovered that insulin worked during tests of these canine subjects. They recreated symptoms of diabetes in the dogs, then gave them insulin injections, which caused the dogs to return to normal.
Bunting then decided to use the pancreases from fetal calves and found that the insulin extracted from them was just as potent.
The discovery was announced on November 14, 1921.
Macleod provided Best and Banting the facilities for their research, although Banting didn’t think Macleod’s contribution was enough to warrant him being cited by the Nobel Committee. Macleod split his part of the prize money with James Collip, a biochemist who also worked with Bunting.
2. Banting Also Had an Interest in Painting & Was Friends With Members of Canada’s Group of Seven
While working in London, Ontario, Bunting developed an interest in painting. He became friends with A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris, two members of the famed Group of Seven, a collection of Canadian artists who painted the country’s landscape. Many of Banting’s early works were done on pieces of cardboard his shirts came on from the dry cleaners.
Many of Banting’s works are on display throughout Canada.
Banting began painting in 1920 and used his hobby as an escape from being a famous doctor. He had hoped to retire from medicine at age 50 and become a painter full-time, but his life was cut short in 1941 at age 49.
“One of the good things I admire Fred for is that he knew enough to draw. I’ve tried my best to get amateurs to draw…he had no professional instruction and so little time to devote to it; but he had the one thing that’s important for a landscape painter – he had a feel … he was like the rest of us [in the Group of Seven] and painted what he had some heart and soul in,” A.J. Casson said of Banting’s paintings, notes the Canadian Diabetes Association.
Two years after his death, his work was put on display at Hart House, University of Toronto. The Art Gallery of Ontario, Queen’s University, and the Art Gallery of Alberta also hosted retrospectives of his work. As The Globe and Mail notes, one of his paintings sold for CAN$76,000 in 2008.
3. Banting Was a War Hero, Earning the Military Cross for Saving Men Even After Being Injured
Banting was also a war hero for his actions in World War I, notes the Canadian Diabetes Association. He first tried to enlist a day after war was declared on Germany in August 1914, but he was denied because of his poor eyesight. The following year, he was allowed to enlist as a member of the Canadian Army Medical Service as he finished his medical studies.
During the war, he first served in England and then in Paris. He later received the Military Cross for his heroic actions on September 28, 1918. On that day, his right arm was seriously injured, but he sacrificed himself to save the lives of other men. It’s been said that he spent 17 hours dressing the wounds of other men, ignoring his own.
4. After His Work on Insulin, Banting Became Interested in Aviation Medicine & Worked With the RCAF
Although Banting is best known for his work with insulin, he also had an interest in aviation medicine and how being at high-altitude affected pilots. He began working with the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1938 and, during the early days of World War II, looked into the blackouts experienced by pilots.
As the Canadian Space Agency notes, Banting predicted that a second World War was coming and believed that aviation would play a major role. He worked tirelessly to make sure pilots could fly at high altitudes during the war to give them an advantage over Germany.
“He realized the inevitability of war,” a 1946 article in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Services read. “Without delay, he…called upon his staff of brilliant research scientists to familiarize themselves with some problems in the field of war aviation medicine. Thus, in the event of hostilities, Canadian scientists would not be caught napping but would be prepared to come immediately to the aid of their country.”
5. Banting Died From Injuries Sustained in a Plane Crash in Newfoundland
The research into aviation Banting was working on at the start of World War II came to a sudden halt in February 1941. He was injured during a plane crash in Newfoundland that instantly killed the navigator and co-pilot. Banting and the pilot survived the crash, but Banting died the day after the crash. He was on his way to England to test flight suits.
Since Banting’s death, his contribution to science and medicine has not been forgotten, especially in Canada. His alma mater, the University of Toronto, is home to the Banting & Best Crentre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. He’s also a member of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and has a crater on the moon named after him. There are also several schools and programs named after him throughout Canada.
In 1989, Queen Elizabeth II visited London, Ontario to light the Flame of Hope at the Banting House and Sir Frederick G. Banting Square. It’s a flame that will keep burning until a cure for diabetes is found. There is also a life-size statue of Banting at Banting Square.
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