Archival Corner – Week 4: Dr. Banting – Hero to Mexican Children

On the centenary of Frederick Banting’s world-changing discovery of insulin, recognition of different sort of anniversary is unfolding in the archives of Banting House. The gift of a very special children’s comic book, “Banting: Descubridor de la Insulina”, published in Mexico in 1971, reminds us that 50 years ago, thousands of Spanish-speaking children, throughout Latin America and Spain, were discovering the exciting story of insulin for the first time—in the comics!

Cover of Vidas Ilustres comic book, “Banting: Descubridor de la Insulina”, 1971

Dr. Bert Hansen, historian of science and medicine in City University of New York, has an interest in the intersection of science with the arts and popular culture. His gift to Banting House of a complete 32-page comic book on Banting from the Mexican Vidas Ilustres (Illustrious Lives) series, is a tribute to the power of a well-told children’s story to captivate and inspire young minds.

In an article on the Mexican comic series, “Stories of the Great Chemists”, Dr. Hansen and co-author Boaz N. Adler relate that in the 1950s, comic books took Mexico’s youth by storm. But alongside tales of familiar superheroes, comic series like Vidas Ilustres, Mujeres Célebres (Famous Women) and Vidas Ejemplares (Exemplary Lives) presented stories of real-life heroes of science—chemists, medical doctors, and research scientists. Such comics, with their dramatic, movie-poster covers and colourful lifelike illustrations, offered children a glimpse into the lives and work of famous scientists, but went beyond to describe basic scientific concepts, and the processes of experimentation and discovery.

In “Banting: Descubridor de la Insulina”, children learn about Banting’s childhood in the small town of Alliston, Ontario; his decision to become a doctor and his training at Victoria College in the University of Toronto; and his enlistment in the Canadian Forces during World War I. Young readers then follow his path to London, Ontario and Western University, where he lectured on the pancreas, and began to develop his theory of insulin as a treatment for diabetes.

Banting in London, Ontario and Western University in 1921, pp 20-21, 23

Translation: Banting left the hospital and settled down in London, Ontario. [The sign on his door] F.G. BANTING – MEDICAL SURGEON. “Let’s see who bites.” Setting up the doctor’s office had cost a lot and made him financially unstable. “In the entire month I’ve only made $20.”… He then began working as an adjunct Professor of Physiology at Western University. “Tomorrow we’ll continue learning about the functions of the pancreas.” … From that day on, Banting began to study everything that had been published about diabetes. “Are you going to write a book?” “No, I am not, for the moment. I just want to know why a person’s life extinguishes like a candle flame.” … At the end of the academic course, he said good bye to Western University.

From there, readers trail Banting to University of Toronto, where he was given lab space and research assistance by Professor of Physiology Dr. J.J.R. Macleod, with whom he shared the Nobel Prize in 1923. And they learn about his treatment of diabetic patients, including children, in his Toronto medical practice. The story ends with Banting’s tragic death in 1941 in a plane crash in Newfoundland.

Throughout, Banting is portrayed as a hero to millions of diabetics, and a doctor whose contribution to society is unparalleled.

Dr. Hansen and Boaz Adler point out that these Mexican comic books, produced between the 1950s and 1980s, had a real impact—instilling generations of young readers with a love of science, and even inspiring some to follow scientific careers. And, as one comic book explains, they showed “just what is achievable through intelligence, patience and human tenacity.”

Post Script on the Archival Process:

When a generous gift like the Vidas Ilustres comic book on Banting is donated to Banting House, it is the archivist’s job to assess its condition; document its source as a gift, loan or purchase; catalogue and photograph it; and place it in the collection in a way that protects and preserves it, and makes it accessible for research or exhibition. In a similar way to libraries, both museums and archives use a common system of numbering, identification and description of items and objects in their collections. At Banting House, we are currently in the process of cataloguing Dr. Hansen’s gift, using the museum software called PastPerfect. Our goal is to make this wonderful Banting comic book accessible to readers online, and for display in future exhibits.


Article credit: Bert Hansen and Boaz N. Adler, “Stories of the Great Chemists” in Distillations, Science History Institute, April 7, 2012 at https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/stories-of-the-great-chemists

Translation credits: Thanks to JP Torralbas and Juan Andres Fernandez for their masterful translations and PhotoShop magic!

This post was written by Lorraine Tinsley, an intern at Banting House NHSC. Lorraine is currently completing her MA in Public History at the University of Western Ontario.

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