Frederick Banting’s search for insulin

Frederick Grant Banting’s career in medicine did not get off to an auspicious start.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Banting, born on 14 November 1891 and raised on a farm near Alliston, Ontario, about 100 kilometres north of Toronto, entered the University of Toronto in 1910 with thoughts of becoming a Christian minister. Failing in his first year of a general arts course, he enrolled in the faculty of medicine in 1912.

“Admission standards for medical students were not as high as they are now,” the encyclopedia writes, with perhaps a hint of irony.

It says Banting was an “unremarkable” medical student. “He later claimed his medical education was extremely lacking”, partly because his class of 1917 was hurried through to graduate a year early, owing to “the urgent need for doctors to serve in the First World War”.

A man with glasses looking at a white dog
Frederick Banting. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

So, why this interest in an unremarkable medical student? Well, in 1923, as one of the discoverers of insulin as a treatment for diabetes, Banting became Canada’s first Nobel Prize winner when he shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Scottish physiologist John James Rickard Macleod.

At the age of 32, Banting was also the youngest Nobel laureate, a distinction he continues to hold in the field of Physiology or Medicine.

Upon graduation from the University of Toronto, Banting was sent overseas by the Canadian Army Medical Corps to serve as a medical officer. In the summer of 1918 he arrived in France, where, according to the encyclopedia, he “saw heavy action in the last great battles of the war, and was wounded by shrapnel at Cambrai in September.

“Captain Banting recovered in England. He received the Military Cross for his valour under fire.”

In 1919 Banting returned to Canada, the encyclopedia says, where he entered Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children for a year of surgical and orthopaedic internships. Failing to find a staff position in Toronto, he opened a general practice of medicine and surgery in 1920. Frustrated by its slow growth, he started teaching part-time at the University of Western Ontario.

He also lectured in pharmacology at the University of Toronto, and in 1922 he was awarded his MD degree.

During these years, according to the Nobel Prize organisation, Banting became “deeply interested” in diabetes.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says diabetes “is a chronic (long-lasting) health condition that affects how your body turns food into energy. Most of the food you eat is broken down into sugar (also called glucose) and released into your bloodstream. When your blood sugar goes up, it signals your pancreas to release insulin. Insulin acts like a key to let the blood sugar into your body’s cells for use as energy.”

The Nobel Prize organisation points out that many researchers had studied the disease and had “indicated” that it was caused by the lack of a protein hormone secreted by cells in the pancreas.

In 1916 British scientist Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer described in depth these pancreatic cells that secrete a substance capable of controlling glucose metabolism, which he termed insulin, from Latin insula (island).

Banting became convinced that insulin held the key to controlling diabetes. The problem, however, was that no one had been able to harvest usable insulin.

In a 2018 paper, ‘The Discovery of Insulin: An Important Milestone in the History of Medicine’, published in the journal Frontiers in Endocrinology, the authors wrote that “the discovery of insulin represents an authentic breakthrough, characterised at the same time by contrasts, controversies and disputes among scholars, as well as by great disappointments, failures and hopes. It is the story of famous, almost famous and little known people, of serendipities, discoveries and re-discoveries.”

According to several accounts, Banting, an inexperienced researcher, took his theories to several people, including Macleod, who was a distinguished professor of physiology at the University of Toronto.

Macleod gave him facilities in which to work, and appointed medical student Charles Best to be his assistant.

Together, the Nobel Prize organisation says, “Banting and Best started the work which was to lead to the discovery of insulin”.

The Canadian Encyclopedia says the experiments “culminated in the winter of 1921–22 in the discovery of insulin. The breakthrough was announced in the US, Washington, DC, on 3 May 1922. By that time, the research team consisted of Banting, Best, Macleod, James B. Collip and three others.”

The Nobel Prize organisation adds that “insulin was immediately and highly effective. While not a cure for diabetes mellitus, it was a powerful lifesaving therapy. Frederick Banting was hailed as the main discoverer of insulin. This is because his idea had launched the research, and he was a leader in the early use of insulin.”

After the discovery was announced, things became messy, with the researchers turning on one another and seeking to discredit each one’s contribution.

When the 1923 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was announced, recognising the contributions of Banting and Macleod, Banting gave half his prize money to Best, and Macleod gave half his prize money to Collip.

The Canadian government awarded Banting regular payments for life, the University of Toronto appointed him Canada’s first professor of medical research, Britain’s King George V knighted him in 1934, and he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society (London) and the Royal Society of Canada.

In February 1941, while taking a military flight from Newfoundland to Britain, Banting was killed when the plane developed engine trouble and crashed.

In his 1984 book Banting: A Biography, author Michael Bliss wrote that Banting “was killed while on a secret mission to Britain regarding wartime scientific research”.

Other sources dispute this claim.

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