Since Frederick Banting’s death in 1941, there has been an abundance of published work on his life. Beginning with comic books like World Famous Heroes only a few months after Banting’s death and continuing with large, comprehensive biographies, there have been volumes written about his life and the impact he had. But what about Banting’s life in his own words? In 1940, Frederick Banting wrote a short memoir and account of his life at the urging of his friend, Dr. Israel Rabinowitch. This week, I had the opportunity to read this unpublished document for the first time.
Autobiographical documents are incredibly important to historians for several reasons. Not only can they tell us about events that happened many years ago, they can also tell us a lot about the people involved, especially the author. In Banting’s case, then, we can learn about how he perceived the insulin period from this document.
The memoir begins with his idea in London in 1920, back when the museum was his home. He then talks about moving to Toronto, where he recalls the discovery of insulin, its implications, and its aftermath. It includes many of his personal thoughts on parts of the insulin story we all thought we knew about. For example, he spends a long time talking about his love for dogs, and for one of his lab dogs in particular who he grew very close with.
We also see in his memoirs how his past affected his actions as a doctor. He often went above and beyond the call of duty as an orthopedic surgeon when he saw children with missing limbs because they reminded him so much of the soldiers he had treated during the First World War. In the document, he also tells his side of the Nobel controversy – he does not have a very high opinion of J. J. R. Macleod, with whom he shared the prize. In fact, Banting mentions many times where Macleod embarrassed him, or appropriated ideas to make them look like his own.
So, as a historian, what did I learn from reading this document? It helped me to see Frederick Banting not only as a leading figure in Canadian medicine, but also as a human – passionate, brilliant, and also flawed. It is so interesting to see a new side to a man whose story I have told for two years. I was also able to connect with him on a personal level – we both love dogs, and it was so interesting to hear my own sentiments echoed by a great Canadian hero. It was a chance to look at Banting through a new lens, and to see a new side of him – a more human side.
This post was written by Kylie Smith. Kylie recently graduated with a B.A. in history and anthropology from The University of Western Ontario, and will be attending teachers college in the fall.