Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

Dr. Frederick Banting and the Discovery of Insulin

Dr. Frederick Banting earned Nobel Prize in 1923 and was knighted in 1934 for Insulin discovery. Sir Banting was also an artist, painting with members of Group of Seven

Sir Frederick Banting - Arthur S Goss, Library and Archives Canad

Frederick Grant Banting was born in the small rural town of Alliston, Ontario on November 14, 1891, the youngest of six children. Graduating from the local high school, Banting enrolled in Arts at the University of Toronto. He failed his courses. He switched to medicine the next year, according to University of Toronto. Medicine was the right choice – he graduated with high marks in 1916.

The First World War came knocking. Banting served as Medical Officer in the Canadian Army Medical Corps in France. He was wounded in 1918 at Cambrai, said, and the next year was awarded the Military Cross for Heroism Under Fire.

Dr. Banting earned his medical degree and award in 1922

The young doctor returned to Canada in 1919 and began his career in medicine in London, Ontario. He accepted a post as Resident Surgeon at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and also taught future doctors: Orthopedics at the University of Western Ontario and Pharmacology at University of Toronto. He finally earned his Medical Doctorate degree in 1922, along with a gold medal.

With a long-held interest in diabetes, Banting began research into the disease. The UofT site said, “… after reading a routine article in a medical journal, Banting wrote down an idea for research aimed at isolating the long-sought internal secretion of the pancreas.” He discussed his theory with Dr. JJR MacLeod, the Physiology professor at the University, who gave Banting laboratory space. MacLeod also assigned then-student Charles Best as assistant to work on the experiments.

Banting and Best isolated insulin; it changed lives of diabetics

Banting and Best’s theories were not completely successful, but lead the way to more experimentation on isolating insulin. Another doctor, JB Collip, joined the group. He further refined and purified the insulin for human use. According to,six weeks later, the medicine was given to a boy dying of diabetes, with great success. “The injection indeed lowered his blood sugar and cleared his urine of sugars and other signs of the disease.” Insulin had an immediate effect, saving the boy’s life.

For their profound research, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Drs. Banting and MacLeod in 1923. The men shared the prize money with their two colleagues. Banting also received a life annuity from the Canadian federal government of $7,500 a year. More honours followed in the form of the Banting and Best Chair of Medical Research at University of Toronto, endowed by the Ontario government, and to which Banting was appointed. He was also appointed Honorary Consulting Physician to several Toronto hospitals. Earlier, Banting had received the University of Toronto’s Reeve Prize, and was given membership in a number of illustrious medical societies.

King George V bestowed a Knighthood on Frederick Banting in 1934. The doctor then sold his patent for $1, his nephew said on, wanting the medicine to be affordable for all.

Sir Frederick Banting was also a skilled artist, painting with the Group of Seven members

Along with being a dedicated physician, Banting was also a talented landscape artist. Tired of the spotlight, he joined the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto in 1925. He met with the Group of Seven and the renowned AY Jackson. Banting joined the skilled artist on sketching trips across Canada: “They sketched from the Georgian Bay area to wintertime rural Quebec… traveled to the Eastern Arctic, where they became the first artists to sketch Hudson Bay trading posts,” noted Peter Wilton in Canadian Medical Association Journal, “Frederick Banting and the Group of Seven”, November 16, 1999. Banting’s paintings were in the style of the Group of Seven and he became recognized for his art.

In his private life, Banting’s personal matters were tangled. He married Marion Robertson in 1924, having a son William in 1928. Four years later, the Bantings had a very public divorce. Five years later, Banting married a young doctor named Hanrietta Ball. Dr. Ball (who became Lady Banting) specialized in medical research and cancer detection.

During WWII, Banting served as medical services liaison officer between the North American and British services. About to fly overseas on a scientific mission, the plane crashed near Musgrave Harbour, Newfoundland on February 21, 1941. Banting left a legacy of life and hope; the work of Sir Frederick Banting has saved and improved the lives of millions of people with diabetes mellitus.

This article was first published on in 2007.  © Susanna McLeod


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