The Canadian medical scientist Frederick Grant Banting (1891-1941) was codiscoverer of insulin and a leader in other fields of medical research, including suprarenal cortex, cancer, silicosis, and aviation medicine.
Frederick Banting was born in Alliston, Ontario, on Nov. 14, 1891, to William Thompson Banting, a well-established farmer, and Margaret Grant Banting. He enrolled at the University of Toronto in 1911 in an arts course leading to theology. However, he decided that he wanted to be a doctor, and in 1912 he registered as a medical student.
With World War I under way, Banting left college in 1915 to join the medical corps as a private. Doctors were urgently needed, however, and he was sent back to finish his studies, graduating in 1916. He was commissioned in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps and proceeded to England, where he received exceptional surgical experience in several army hospitals.
On returning to Toronto in 1919, Banting was appointed to a residency in surgery at the Hospital for Sick Children, but in 1920 he set up practice for himself. He moved to London, Ontario, and opened an office. One evening, he read an article dealing with the relation of the islands of Langerhans to diabetes. Banting had been interested in diabetes since his school days when a classmate had died in coma. This event impressed him deeply, and now his mind eagerly seized upon possibilities which might be worthy of investigation.
Initiation of the Insulin Work
In 1920 Banting went to Toronto for an interview with the professor of physiology Dr. J.J.R. Macleod, a world authority in the field of carbohydrate metabolism. Banting described his ideas and his desire to search for the internal secretion of the pancreas; he begged for an opportunity to try out his theories in the physiology laboratory, but Macleod refused for he knew that Banting had no training in research. Banting returned to Toronto several times to try to persuade Macleod. Finally, impressed by his enthusiasm and determination, Macleod promised Banting the use of the laboratory for 8 weeks during the summer. Macleod knew that if Banting was to have any success whatever, someone who knew the latest chemical techniques must work with him. Charles Best, completing the final year in the physiology and biochemistry course, had been working on a problem related to diabetes in Macleod's department. Banting and Best met and talked things over. Although no stipends were available, both were determined and decided that work would begin on May 17, 1921, the day following Best's final examination.
Discovery of Insulin
The first attempts to produce a diabetic condition upon which to study the effect of a pancreatic extract were not successful. Every effort was made to show that a neutral or preferably an acid aqueous or alcoholic extract of degenerated or intact dog pancreas and of fetal or adult beef pancreas always produced a potent antidiabetic material. The observations were repeated time and again until there was convincing evidence that the extract did produce the dramatic effect which was being sought in depancreatized animals.
As the material was extracted from the microscopic islands of Langerhans (cells of the pancreas, different from the majority, which are grouped together as islets of tissue named after Paul Langerhans, the German physician who first observed them), it was called "isletin"; later the named was changed to "insulin," meaning island. Again and again the same successful results were obtained, and when Macleod returned to Toronto, he was finally convinced that the elusive hormone had indeed been captured. On Nov. 14, 1921, Banting and Best presented their findings before the Physiological Journal Club of the University of Toronto, and later that month a paper entitled "The Internal Secretion of the Pancreas" was submitted for publication in the Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine.
News of the discovery brought scientists from many parts of the world, as well as diabetics and their families, to Toronto. To accelerate production of the precious extract, Macleod suggested turning over further purification and development to Dr. J.B. Collip, a trained biochemist. Banting was then free to devote himself to clinical aspects of insulin.
Banting subsequently made a vigorous and sustained attack on the physiological problems associated with the suprarenal gland, facilitated studies on silicosis, made significant advances in knowledge of the etiology of cancer, and was mainly responsible for the initiation of aviation medical research in Canada even before the outbreak of war.
Nobel Prize and Other Honors
In 1923 Banting received the Nobel Prize in medicine jointly with Macleod. With characteristic generosity he divided his share with Best; Macleod did the same with Collip. That year the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research was established by the university with a special grant from the Ontario Legislature. In 1934 Banting was created a knight commander of the British Empire and the following year was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London. He was killed in a plane crash on the coast of Newfoundland, Feb. 21, 1941, while on a war mission to England.
Further Reading on Frederick Grant Banting
Two studies of Banting are Seale Harris, Banting's Miracle: The Story of the Discoverer of Insulin (1946), and Lloyd Stevenson, Sir Frederick Banting (1946; rev. ed. 1947). See also G.A. Wrenshall, G. Hetenyi, and W.R. Feasby, The Story of Insulin: Forty Years of Success against Diabetes (1962).