Tales of a Diabetic Intern; Chapter 9: History & Art Through Comics

I love comic books. So of course I would devote a blog post to our Free Comic Book Day event! Ours was a special event. Not only did we give out prints of an old Banting comic, but we also had for sale a new Banting graphic novel published this year! (We even had the author, Deborah Kerbel with us to sign copies and share some of her thoughts about the book)!

Fred & Marjorie: A Doctor, A Dog, and the Discovery of Insulin tells the famous Banting/insulin story in a new way, focusing on Banting’s relationship with the dogs whose lives were sacrificed to save the lives of people with diabetes. The book specifically follows the story of Marjorie, the last dog who was given insulin before the discoverers started administering it to people.

History is rarely told from the perspective of animals. But Deborah Kerbel deliberately shows the significance of these dogs’ role in the discovery story. At one point in the book, Banting outright states that “[the dogs’] role in this research is just as important as ours.” As a diabetic—and a historian—I agree. Without these dogs, insulin may not have been discovered (or at least discovered so soon).

Although Kerbel is a children’s author, she certainly acted as an historian when writing this book. Like all historians, she found a gap in the story—a piece of the story that may not normally receive as much recognition—and sought to fill it. Of course, the dogs used in Banting and Best’s experiments have been highlighted (they are not entirely unknown), but, as with history more broadly, it is rare to find a book that not only mentions the significance of animals, but also places them at the forefront.

There are so many other wonderful moments from this book, there are so many themes or individual panels I want to highlight, but (1), that would turn this blog post into its own book, and (2), you wouldn’t have to read the graphic novel yourself. So pick up a copy, send me an email, and we’ll talk (you can pick up a SIGNED copy from us by emailing banting@diabetes.ca)!

The final topic I would like to briefly discuss, then, is the connection between history and art. The accuracy debate aside, history and art work well together. Historians and artists both interpret the past and share that interpretation with their respective audiences. On the surface, those interpretations may seem different (the historian writes a monograph, while the artist paints a picture or writes a graphic novel), but at their core, both historians and artists share similar goals: to interpret history and comment on that interpretation. So often, I see historians at loggerheads with artists, but I argue that it is far more interesting when historians see themselves with artists rather than against them.

But back to Fred & Marjorie. This graphic novel is an excellent example of history and art working in tandem. The history of insulin’s discovery is complicated (both scientifically and historically) to explain to a child. But a simplified and more artistic approach helps children learn what they need about this story. The artist can take the history and make it digestible for a younger audience. That relationship is invaluable.

Additionally, with its beautiful illustrations, Fred & Marjorie is far better than any historical monograph at making readers empathize with the dogs as well as Banting’s relationship with them. While we don’t know the exact words Banting would have said to Marjorie, or what happened during their private interactions, it is incredibly powerful to read and see, regardless of accuracy. Art can help the public empathize with history through these moments of intimacy and emotion. Such moments are critical and should never be understated.

Those are my thoughts both on Fred & Marjorie and the relationship between history and art more broadly. Overall, history and art should mix more often—I bet it would make some really interesting interpretations of the past, interpretations which historians may not be able to think of on their own.

Until Next Time,

Patrick

P.S. Thank you Deborah Kerbel for offering up your time at Banting House. It was wonderful to see you there and have the chance to meet you personally!

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