Although Frederick Banting died 75 years ago, his life left an impact which is felt by millions of people all over the world today. While many have been touched by Banting’s work in the discovery of insulin, aviation medicine, and other pursuits, for many the effect is personal. Throughout his life, Banting had many family members, friends, and acquaintances. Often, these people or their descendants come to the museum for a tour, and we at the museum get to see a different side to his story.
Just this week, we have had several visitors come in with personal connections to Frederick Banting. One woman’s father-in-law was a good friend and colleague of Banting’s at the University of Toronto. We also had visitors who were related to Banting through his cousin.
While history lives on through objects like the artifacts held here at Banting House, is also lives on powerfully through oral and personal histories – the storytelling of people who have personal knowledge of past events. Many people who can tell us about Banting from personal experience worked or lived with him. It is from them that we have received many of our artifacts at Banting House.
These people can tell us about aspects of Banting’s life, personality and thoughts that we might never know otherwise. He was a very private person; many things he would have revealed to his friends he kept private from the media. The purpose of oral history, in many cases, is to get at ‘the story underneath the story’- for example, one of our visitors this week said Banting had told her father-in-law about the Nobel Prize controversy and what really happened, which was very different from the ‘official’ story.
Speaking to those who have personal connections to Banting can make history come to life and become more exciting. However, there are also some problems with personal histories – because it is one person’s experience, the story they tell will always be subjective.
Oral histories have been recognized as extremely important in the discovery of insulin. The leading historian on the subject, Michael Bliss of the University of Toronto, acknowledged in his book The Discovery of Insulin that for many years, personal accounts of the discovery of insulin were more accurate than official accounts. His research focused on recollections of team members, friends, and colleagues of Banting, Best, Macleod, and Collip.
As time goes on, recollections of Banting from those who personally knew him may be less common, but stories from their families and descendants will continue to be told, and we at Banting House will be here to hear them!
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.