Canadian-born British subject, Sir Frederick Grant Banting was a skilled medical researcher who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his role in the discovery of insulin (he was knighted in 1934). He was killed en route to England on a medical war mission. Banting was a liaison between American and British medical services with the coming of war. He was flying from Gander, Newfoundland, to England on when both engines failed on his plane, which crashed into a stand of trees. Of the four persons on the aircraft, three died, including Banting who lingered for a few days before succumbing to his injuries.
Canadian physician Frederick Banting was definitely his own man – a aspiring surgeon, He spent his career somewhat frustrated because his codiscovery of insulin at the tender age of 30 consigned him to a conspicuous life of research. King George V of Great Britain dubbed him “Sir Frederick.” The Nobel Foundation conferred him with the highest honor in medical research. Time Magazine called him “Spark-Plug Man” for his mercurial temperament and glib humor. The man who extended life for diabetics responded to an hour to give a two-hour lecture on diabetes, “Hell, for all I know about diabetes 15 minutes would be enough."
The isolation of insulin is a story that reads like a minor soap opera. In 1920, Banting, who was a medical researcher at University of Toronto was doing experimental research on lab dogs. The basic experimental process? “Tie off pancreatic duct of dogs. Wait six to eight weeks. Remove residue and extract.” Together with a research assistant, med student Charles Best, they isolated insulin, the hormone secreted by the pancreas that controls sugar in the system.
The discovery was made possible in part because of the cooperation of department head John James Rickard MacLeod, a carbohydrate metabolism expert, who supported the research and provided lab space. Banting was working without long-term funding over the summer of 1921, using experimental procedures to produce diabetes in experimental dogs that he and Best purchased off the streets of Toronto.
As is often the practice in public health and medical research, a resource-providing sponsor gets co-credit for a discovery, even if they conduct none of the basic research. MacLeod and Banting shared the 1923 Nobel Prize for medicine, even though Banting and Best had performed the basic research – Best was not credited. There was also at least one fist fight along the way, between Banting and a biochemist, James Bertram Collip of the University of Alberta. Collip was brought into the project to refine the glandular-extraction technique, and in the fall of 1921 (working in separate labs from the now fully-funded Banting) he had refined the technique to extract sucfficient insulin for clinical trials. When the medical community started to refer to the potential drug as “Collip’s Extract,” Banting tracked down Dr. Collip on campus, and landed on him, pummeling him and slamming Collip’s head into the floor, yelling “So, you will call this 'Collip's extract,' will you!”
Laying aside the theatrics, the next January a 14-year-old diabetic, Leonard Thompson, received the first human insulin injection. He was about to slip into a diabetic coma and die. Instead he lived until 1933. The Nobel committee awarded Banting and MacLeod with the Nobel. Banting, feeling that Dr. Best had been slighted, divided his prize money with Best; MacLeod gave half his prize to Collip. The research team was left emotionally divided by temper and ego by the end of the project. MacLeod returned to Scotland in 1928, while Banting became Chair of Medical Research at University of Toronto. Best would later become chair of the department.
Banting was a veteran of World War I, wounded in action and nearly losing his arm. With the outbreak of the second war, he again sought to serve, this time promoting an aviation research laboratory. At the time of his death, Time reported that it was rumored Banting had been working on a way to prevent blackouts of pilots pulling out of steep dives. On February 21, Dr. Banting was traveling to England on a research-related mission when his aircraft crashed near a small Newfoundland lake. Banting survived the initial crash. He bandaged the injuries of the of the only other survivor, Captain Joseph Mackey, then rested on a bed of branches and awaited help for his own severe injuries. The crash was discovered by Newfoundland trappers who joined the search.