As this most trying year comes to a close, we are reminded that 100 years ago, Frederick Banting was also marking, perhaps with relief, the end of a year of profound professional and emotional turmoil. Questioning his decision to continue a fledgling medical practice in London or to pursue research opportunities in Toronto, and tormented by a faltering long-distance romance with his fiancée of four years—Edith Roach, Banting presented a glum face at his family’s Christmas gathering in Alliston. His older sister Essie (Esther) was moved to write a deeply personal 11-page missive, trying to reassure her dear brother that it was perhaps for the best that he and Edith parted ways, reminding him that “Life surely has better things in store for you both.”
Letter from Essie, “Hillandale” Dec 29/20, pp. 1-2 — Banting House NHSC
This heartfelt letter to Fred from Essie is now held in the Banting House NHSC archives. Essie’s letter is a unique example of their correspondence, and it holds deep historic value and national significance as a “Level 1” cultural resource—in that it is directly linked to the period of Banting’s occupancy in Banting House, a national historic site.
Banting siblings Nelson, Essie and Fred — Banting House NHSC
Essie’s letter also holds insights into Banting’s daily life and his emotional state during his time in London, and it gives us a glimpse of the close bond between sister and brother. Essie writes:
“Hillandale” Dec 29/20
My dear Fred:
I have just tucked my “bairns” up for the night and now while it’s quiet and I can write without interruption I shall try to put into words some of the thoughts that have been uppermost in my mind since seeing you.… I was very very sorry to see you so disappointed and unhappy. I had hoped for a very different state of affairs for you…. You were always a good son, an ideal brother and a true lover, — had I been Edith I would have been very proud to have journeyed down life’s pathway by your side, but somehow that was not life’s way… Life surely has better things in store for you both….
Edith Roach — Banting House NHSC
The Banting family had known Edith since 1911 when Edith’s father, a Methodist minister on the West Essa circuit, had moved his family to Alliston. Edith—quiet, intelligent and devout, soon captured Fred’s heart, and their friendship blossomed as the pair studied at the University of Toronto: Fred in Medicine and Edith in Modern Languages. As the First World War turned their world upside down, Fred proposed to Edith, and sealed their engagement with a diamond ring just before reporting for military duty in March 1917.
By the end of the war, Edith had graduated with a gold medal in Modern Languages and was teaching high school, while Fred, having returned from active duty in France with a Military Cross, was a surgeon apprentice in Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. But as biographer Michael Bliss notes in Banting: A Biography (1984), their separation during the war had taken its toll, and their relationship was becoming strained:
… he and Edith began to wonder if theirs was truly the heaven-made match every couple dreamed of… Edith found some of Fred’s habits disturbing, such as his readiness to swear and take a drink, and possibly the heavy smoking habit he brought back… Was Fred really growing up?…Edith on the other hand appears to have matured into a successful young woman, earning her own way in the world, having a mind of her own…. She was not going to be the docile, obliging helpmate that Fred’s mother was to his father. She was a much more modern woman. (45)
Still, Fred clung to the idea of marriage and family with Edith, and on leaving Toronto for London to start his own medical practice, purchased what he hoped would become their combined dream home and medical office in London at 442 Adelaide Street (now known as Banting House), hanging out his shingle on July 1, 1920. Edith had established herself nearby, teaching at the Ingersoll District Collegiate Institute, and the couple would visit together most Saturdays.
The combination of starting afresh in an unknown city, and the fact that so few patients walked through the door (receipts by the end of August totalling a mere $41), began to undermine Banting’s confidence. Now in debt, he supplemented his meagre income by working as a demonstrator in surgery and anatomy at Western University for $2 an hour. He argued often with Edith about their future. They began drifting apart. Edith spent Saturday, October 30 with Fred, and through the following day and night, restless and unable to sleep, he awoke at two in the morning with the thought that isolating the internal secretions of the pancreas could lead to a treatment for diabetes—an idea that changed both the course of Banting’s personal life, and medical history.
By Christmas, after a flurry of interviews with Professor J.R.R. Macleod at the University of Toronto, and with his former superior Dr C.L. Starr at Sick Children’s, Banting was offered lab space at the university the following summer to conduct experiments. But as tenuous as his London situation was, he anguished about giving up on his dream of a life with Edith, and making the move back to an equally uncertain future in Toronto. At the family Christmas gathering, Essie couldn’t help but notice her brother’s despair. She writes:
… I have thought over Edith’s side of the case and as I see it she is letting cold “womans rights” rule her life instead of warm “womans heart dictates”… I don’t doubt that there are men whom such a wife would satisfy but – Fred knowing you as I do, the blood that flows in our veins, I know that such would never make for you a happy home…
I have always liked and in many ways admired Edith but I never felt that I could ever get really “close” to her so I may not understand her, but Fred of this much I am sure — that if her love for you was the kind that insures future happiness there would not have been so much fault-finding and so many demands on you but instead there would have been a desire to really be a partner to you… So perhaps old fate is just intervening before it is too late and showing you both that a mistake has been made, — that for you both happiness lies in different directions….
John joins me in wishing you a good 1921 in every respect.
Lovingly your only Sister
Letter from Essie,”Hillandale” Dec 29/20, pp 10-11 in which Essie refers to Mrs Rowland Hill from whose family Banting bought Banting House, and who resided with him prior to moving into their new home in 1921 — Banting House NHSC
As the new year opened, Banting followed Starr’s advice to hang on in London a little longer, and for a time his practice picked up, bringing in over $200 in January, and more than $500 in February. Edith continued to visit most Saturdays until early May, but as Essie seemed to predict, their relationship deteriorated and at some point Edith broke off the engagement and returned the ring. On Saturday, May 14, 1921 Banting made his decision to leave London; and as Bliss relates, he locked up his house, supervised a final exam for fourth-year medical students at Western, and caught the noon train for Toronto. As a token of appreciation, his students sent him off with a box of cigars. (60)
The year 1921 proved to be the turning point for Banting and the discovery of insulin, and indeed changed the course of history “in every respect.”
After moving to Toronto to begin his research on insulin, Fred could not forget Edith, and in 1923, as he was preparing to travel to England for a royal audience with King George V, he again tried to persuade her to become his wife and accompany him abroad for their honeymoon. Edith did not go.
Soon afterwards Fred met and fell in love with Marion Robertson, but still his heart remained torn, and he even tried to get the women to meet. In a furious and dramatic gesture, Edith demanded that she and Fred formally end their own relationship with a written contract, a payment of $2000 and the ring, and that they give up all claims on each other. But Edith’s final letter to Banting is filled with tenderness, and resignation. As Bliss records, she writes in May 1924:
… It will be 13 years this next summer since we first met. The times that you have made me supremely happy during those years are beyond number and are the times that really count. I am glad I have had them and I do not regret. It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, but I don’t feel that we have really lost.
May God bless you and keep you Fred and make you a greater man.
Fred married Marion Robertson in June 1924, and never approached Edith again.
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.