Frederick Banting - The Insulin Man

by Kirsty Jones

“Insulin does not belong to me, it belongs to the world.”

If you’ve found yourself on google recently – whether it was to power through PBL or watch your seventeenth episode of Gossip Girl in two days while gently sobbing into your off-brand ice-cream (not speaking from experience…) – you may have noticed through your tears a Doodle, commemorating Sir Frederick Banting. Amongst the likes of Jenner and Lister, Banting’s name seems to rarely get a mention; but this exclusion to the shadows is hugely undeserved for a man who achieved so much.

In 1891, to receive a diagnosis of diabetes was a death sentence in itself. Children were known to succumb within days, and even on a strict diet you were not expected to live beyond three to four years. The first acknowledgment of the disease was recorded in 1552BC by an Egyptian physician, and so for over two thousand years it was an unstoppable and deadly force for those unlucky enough to be struck with it.

1891 was also the year that Frederick Grant Banting was born in Ontario, Canada. In his studies he initially joined the University of Toronto’s art programme, but after failing his first year he petitioned to switch to medicine and began his course on 12th September, 1912. During the First World War, as a doctor, he was awarded the Iron Cross for his heroism on the field where he tended to the wounded for 16 hours whilst seriously injured himself (puts 9am PBL into a bit of context, eh?) and after the war returned to Toronto to continue his training.

In 1920, preparing himself to give a talk to students on the pancreas, Banting came across an article connecting diabetes to a hormone produced by the Islets of Langerhans called insulin. However, the hormone couldn’t be reached – grinding up the pancreatic cells resulted in the loss of insulin due to pancreatic proteolytic enzymes. It remained an inaccessible source…

Evidence came out that, with closure of the pancreatic duct, trypsin-producing cells would deteriorate and die whilst the Islets of Langerhans would remain intact and from here: insulin could be harvested. Banting performed the surgery on living dogs and found this theory to be a success. To transfer the procedure to the mass market, he began extracting insulin from cattle fetuses; insulin harvesting remained mainly from cattle and pork until the late 20th century. It proved a massive success, and Banting was awarded, with J.J.R. McLeod, the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1923,  aged just 32.

Beyond the world of science, Banting managed to find time to be awarded a knighthood and continue his art, some of which is sold now for so much that you could buy 7,777 tubs of proper branded Ben and Jerry’s and still have enough left over for a Freddo (Surgo is not accountable for any post-Brexit inflation that could invalidate this claim). Tragically, he passed away in a plane crash in 1941 at the age of only 49. As untimely a death as this was, his legacy and spirit is carried forwards into the 21st century by those whose lives would have been impossible without his incredible donation to science.

So there you have it! A brief insight into the artistic, iron-cross-winning, young-Nobel-Laureate, countless-lifesaver whiz that was Frederick Banting. And you’re in bed. Watching Gossip Girl. Enjoy episode eighteen!