128 years ago today, on 14th November, 1891, Frederick Grant Banting was born in Alliston, Ontario, Canada, the fifth and youngest child of William Banting and Margaret Grant. Banting was born into a poor family, his father a labourer on a farm and his mother an immigrant from Ireland and a homemaker.
After graduating High School, Banting studied divinity at The University of Toronto, but he later transferred to medicine in the year 1912. After the outbreak of World War One in 1014, Banting applied to serve his country in the army, but he was knocked back twice by his poor eyesight and continued studying Medicine instead. At this time, there was a severe shortage of Medics in the military, so the University Fast Tracked their medical programme on the understanding that the newly qualified doctors would join the war effort upon completion of their studies. Banting chose this route and his course was condensed, allowing him to join the army in December 1916.
Our earlier blog concentrates on the military work Banting was involved with, including the fact he was injured himself in the Battle of Cambrai in September, 1918, but he continued to serve his country and help wounded soldiers for 17 hours, despite plea’s from his Seniors to stop due to his own injuries. Banting was sent to a military hospital in Buxton, England where he spent several months recovering, by the time the army deemed him fit for service, the war had ended. Banting was awarded the Military Cross for bravery in 1919.
Banting returned to Canada and enrolled to specialise in orthopaedic surgery, he was placed in The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto as resident surgeon, but could not find permanent employment after his studies, so he set up a general medical practice in London, Ontario. This medical practice was partially successful and Banting supplemented his income by teaching at the University.
Whilst living in London, Banting was required to teach a class about the functions of the pancreas. The islets of langerhans in the pancreas and these make and secrete a hormone called insulin which controls blood sugar. When the islets of langerhans are destroyed, as in Type 1 diabetes, insulin is not produced and as insulin is essential to life, the patients blood sugars rise and this induces DKA, a coma like state. Death was certain to all Type 1 Diabetics prior to Banting’s work. Banting had the idea to isolate insulin from animals and inject it into humans in order to “cure hyperglycaemia”, we wrote a blog about this moment previously. Banting’s idea would not cure diabetes, but in theory it would maintain blood sugars to within a range that would keep the person alive and live a relatively normal life.
Banting discussed his idea with Professor of Physiology, J.J.R McLeod, who didn’t believe Banting’s idea would work, but due to Banting’s perseverance McLeod granted Banting a small research grant a medical student to serve as his assistant, Charles Best and a bio-chemist, James Collip, who’s role was to physically isolate insulin.
The team worked together and within a year had isolated insulin from a dog, but as the experiment progressed, they learnt that dogs can not produce enough insulin for human needs so focused instead on cows. Just months afterwards, with bovine insulin isolated, Banting performed what is still referred to as a modern medical miracle.
On 11 January, 1922, Banting took his isolated bovine insulin to the Toronto General Hospital. Over 50 children lay unconscious in diabetic coma’s, their bodies shutting down from the effect of high blood sugars. Death was certain and imminent. Prior to this moment, there was no treatment for diabetes and patients followed an extreme, limited diet that would delay death slightly but the patient would also be severely malnourished. With no other hope, the father of one 15 year old patient who lay in a coma, Leonard Thompson, agreed for the experimental substance to be trialled on her son who was asleep in his coma. All other parents gave permission and Banting injected the youngsters one by one. By the time Banting got to the last few patents, Leonard Thompson and others first injected were awaking from their coma’s.
Despite needing to inject this substance many times a day in order to stay alive, the children were released from hospital within days and went on to live relatively normal lives. Leonard Thompson went on to live a further 12 years, he died at the age of 27 from pneumonia.
This story brings tears to our eyes, and we tell it often here at The Pendsey Trust.
Banting could have become an extremely rich man, but he wanted to ensure that everyone who needed insulin had sustainable access to it and he didn’t want drugs companies to control it, so he, Best, McLeod and McClue selflessly sold the patent for insulin for just one Canadian Dollar, receiving just 25 cents each for their work, which they declared a gift to medicine. Banting refused to put his name on the patent, believing it was unethical to profit from something that would save lives. Banting wanted anyone who needed insulin to be able to access it, no matter what their background and status.
Banting was awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize for Medicine, he donated every cent of his prize money towards medical research into diabetes, another selfless act which was another move towards improving the lives of those living with Diabetes. Banting remains to this day the youngest Noble lauraete to win a Nobel prize for medicine, aged just 32. He was also the first Canadian to receive the prize. In 1934, Banting received a well deserved knighthood from King George V.
Banting spent the next 15 years studying diabetes and was dedicated to improving the lives of his patients, he opened a Diabetes clinic and research centre in London, Ontario. Banting enlisted for military service again on the outbreak of WW2, but despite being banned from frontline service due to his medical work, he was killed when his plane came down over Newfoundland in 1939, Banting was on his way to England to advise the Government on chemical warfare. Banting died a relatively poor man.
Banting and his colleagues would be turning in their graves (Banting is burried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto) to know that in the 21st Century, almost 100 years after their discovery and gift to the world, people are still dying from being unable to afford insulin. Sadly, in many developing countries, a Type One Diabetes diagnosis still means certain death. Families living on less than £1 a day simply can not afford £16 a month for insulin to keep their child alove, despite being hardworkers and dedicated parents. Banting would be mad that 99 years after “modern medicines greatest miracle” children still suffer and pass away from hyperglycaemia and related complications. Until this situation changes, The Pendsey Trust will continue to advocate for these families, which for many, is an act of solidarity with other T1 patients or parents.
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