My time volunteering at Banting House has led me down one rabbit hole after another. It started with one famous image, Dr. Frederick Banting with the famous Russian doctor, Ivan Petrovitch Pavlov. Pavlov, like Banting, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1904) for his work in studying the physiology of digestion. In 1935, Banting made a summer trip to Russia, meeting with Pavlov at his home in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.
Starting with this one picture of the two of them together, I began my research online and came across Banting’s personal letters and notebook provided by Sir Frederick Banting Digital Library on the New Tecumseth Library website. In these letters, Banting’s personal feelings and observations of Russia come to light as he depicts many different characters and sites.
After reviewing this collection of letters and sketches from Russia, I wanted to focus more specifically on his time with Pavlov in Leningrad. As I reviewed the Frederick Banting Papers, University of Toronto (online), I came across another interesting rabbit hole. I had already learned that the reason for Banting’s trip was to attend the 15th International Physiological Congress in Leningrad and while there was little information on Banting and the Congress, I did discover that another famous Canadian closely connected to Banting also attended, Dr. Norman Bethune. Bethune, who is pictured at the museum as a part of Banting’s University of Toronto Medical School graduating class (1917), also took part in the Congress. That was news to me! It’s funny how you can come across the most unexpected things while doing historical research.
While I learned more about Bethune, I was still missing information on Banting and Pavlov relationship. As I continuously conducting research online, I appeared to have exhausted all the rabbit holes and then I asked myself, “Why not try to research the old fashioned way?” So, I went to the Weldon Library at the University of Western Ontario and came back with a 1484-page book that was at least 4 inches thick. After lugging the book home and opening it up, I found exactly what I was looking for. In the last chapter of the American Journal of Psychiatry Vol. 92, I found an In Memoriam for Dr. Pavlov written directly by Banting himself. The discovery of this In Memoriam reveals the true extent of their relationship. Banting idolized him, not only for his scientific achievements but also for his dominant personality, for which he gained massive respect and honour from the scientific community, something Banting was unsure of in his own life. It clearly showed that there was more to their relationship than colleagues meeting at a Medical Congress. Pavlov was a true inspiration to Banting in both career and character.
Throughout his travels, Banting experienced the grandeur of the Soviet Union’s significant support of their scientist. He also visited present-day Ukraine, and expressed his admiration for the City of Kyiv, “the finest city [he] had yet visited.” His perceptions reflected the Russia he witnessed and was exposed to, a vastly different Russia than had been reported. The reality of his experiences versus the true reality of Russia was something I was eager to share.
Unfortunately, global events took place that significantly altered my ability to continue my research before the end of term. As I was preparing to contact the Ivan P. Pavlov Apartment Museum and the I.P. Pavlov Memorial House Museum, Russia invaded Ukraine. Shortly after, Banting House received a letter from the Minister of Canadian Heritage:
“In response to Russia’s egregious actions, the Government of Canada has implemented sweeping sanctions in coordination with like-minded partners and is examining all of its activities and holdings. These actions reflect the broad international support for the people of Ukraine.
In this context, the Department of Canadian Heritage is undertaking a review to identify activities involving Russia and Belarus as part of the Government’s ongoing response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
We urge you to do the same, and to suspend all activity involving the participation of Russian or Belarusian state organizations or their official representatives.”
The Honourable Pablo Rodriguez, P.C., M.P.
With Banting House choosing to follow the Government’s directive, my rabbit hole journey abruptly came to an end. My research is now on hold, indefinitely.
While frustrating, I understand that museums in the 21st century, including Banting House, have a significant role to play in society. More and more on social media, we are seeing #museumsarenotneutral. The position is not and should not simply be about social change, dismantling racism and oppression found in museums. With UNESCO estimating that 127 culturally significant sites throughout Ukraine have been damaged in the last two-and-a-half months, including 54 religious buildings, 15 monuments, and 11 museums (UNESCO, 5/9/2022), #museumsarenotneutral must include the solidarity of the museum community when their colleagues and collections are under threat as we are seeing in Ukraine.
How easily one simple reference can lead one to the discovery of many different parts, becoming something bigger and more significant than that original photograph started with and it’s true meaning revealed. I hope one day soon, we will be able to complete the research. Who knows where the next rabbit hole will take us.
Nicole Kinloch is a recent graduate of The University of Western Ontario and former volunteer with Banting House National Historic Site of Canada.