Episode 10 – Awards, Honours and Nobel Prize
In this episode, Jim and Bob Banting discuss the period following the patent and public recognition of insulin and of the impact of its discovery. Notably, this episode covers the internal conflict within the “discovery team”, as well as the group being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923.
More About the Banting Homestead
“No Place Like Home: The Banting Homestead Story”
By Christopher J. Rutty, Ph.D
Lead Historian, Defining Moments Canada “Insulin 100” Project.
As is highlighted in this featured podcast episode (“Awards, Honours and Nobel Prize”), on October 26, 1923, Dr. Frederick Banting arrived at his office in Toronto after spending the previous day visiting his parents in his hometown of Alliston, Ontario. Prompted by a phone call from a friend, Banting opened the morning newspaper to discover that he had won the Nobel Prize, along with J.J.R. Macleod. The Nobel news brought to a climax a series of honours, awards, and financial rewards, directed primarily to Banting, that had built up during 1923. Visits home provided Banting with some much-needed respite from the whirlwind generated by the discovery of insulin. But it wasn’t just the family visits that are of significance. For Banting personally, in the broader context of this momentous discovery, and how and why it happened, the discovery was intimately linked to his relationship with his hometown and his family, and particularly with the “Banting Homestead,” the farmhouse and property where he was born and grew up.
The discovery of insulin is associated with several births and birthplaces. Banting House National Historical Site in London, Ontario, is described as “The Birthplace of Insulin” because it was there that, on October 31, 1920, Banting was struck by the idea that led to the discovery. The actual discovery and birth of insulin took place in the University of Toronto’s Medical Building, marked by several key breakthroughs and developments during 1921 that led to its first human use in January 1922. And the “Banting Homestead Heritage Park” in Alliston, is built on Frederick Banting’s birth in the site’s old farmhouse on November 14, 1891, a date celebrated as World Diabetes Day since 2007.
Despite his professional and public efforts to highlight the essential contributions of Charles Best, J.B. Collip, as well as Macleod, Banting could do little to prevent the accolades of his medical and research peers, and the attention of newspaper reporters, from focusing on him, including on his personal story. A year of many high-profile accolades and honours directed at Banting began at the end of December 1922, most notably at the annual conference of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology held December 28-29 at the University of Toronto, a major gathering of some 250 Canadian and American medical scientists. At the close of a special joint session focused on insulin, as was widely reported in the press, Banting received a three-minute standing ovation. There had been a similar ovation a week earlier from the 600 members of the usually reserved New York Academy of Medicine, among which was leading diabetes specialist, Dr. Frederick Allen. As was reported in the New York Tribune on December 22, Allen said of Banting, “He has made one of the greatest discoveries of modern medicine, and the name Banting will be written large in medical history. The best men have been trying without success for thirty years to do what he has done in less than two.”
A few weeks later, the Toronto Telegram, and then the Toronto Star, sent reporters to Alliston to learn more about Banting the person, his family, and his hometown roots. The first line of the January 18, 1923, story in the Telegram, quoted Banting’s mother. “Every Sunday since he left home in 1911 to attend University, he has written to me;” while he was in school, when he was overseas during World War I, and after he was wounded and had to use his left hand until his right hand recovered. “He has been a good son and is a good man. To say he is great — that would be redundancy.” From her perspective, “He is still a little boy. When he was at home he would come into our room and, sitting on the edge of the bed, tell his parents everything. He still does that.” For Banting, as the article emphasized, he “values the simple tributes of his mother more than the laudations of biologists; he would rather preserve her faith than hear the plaudits of learned men. Otherwise, how could this statement of his mother be true?”
The Telegram article described how Banting was born “on his father’s homestead, third line, Essa Township, Simcoe County, about three-quarters of a mile out of Alliston.” Banting’s father, William Thompson Banting and his wife, Margaret (Grant), bought the farm from his cousin in the spring of in 1891, several months before Fred was born. Fred was the youngest of five children: four brothers, Nelson, Thompson, Kenneth and Fred, and a sister, Esther. Nelson had already set up a nearby farm. Thompson was the second eldest and in 1915 bought the homestead after their parents moved to a house on Queen’s Street in Alliston after Esther married. The article included a photo of the farm homestead, along with photos of Banting’s parents, their home in Alliston, and photos of the Alliston High School and its principal, who told the reporter that “Banting was not a remarkable scholar.” Banting “has never forgotten his home ties,” nor his hometown, the Telegram reporter emphasized. After Banting was wounded during WWI, his unit captured several enemy guns and they presented one of them to Banting “as a mark of esteem.” Banting then sent the gun home to Alliston and “it stands to-day in the grounds of the school where he first studied.” This machine gun was later moved and today is on display in the shed at the Banting Homestead.
The Toronto Star article about Banting’s hometown was published on January 27, 1923, by which time plans were quickly developing for a special homecoming day for him. “This will disprove the old saying that a prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” On January 26, “the town council appointed a committee to decide upon what form their recognition of Dr. F.G. Banting’s services to science should take.” Beyond his parents and relatives, “Every man, woman and child in the little town of Alliston are proud of him.” There would be a large public reception and banquet, while his “old school plans to show their pride in a tablet erected in the school to honor his great discovery.” Banting’s mother explained to the Star reporter the secret of her son’s success. “Boys who have to get out and work for what they want, get farther in the end than boys who are given everything.” She also pointed out that he would never come asking for money to buy things, but he would instead “figure out how to get it for himself. Just the same way he figured out insulin.”
Frederick Banting’s Alliston homecoming took place on February 23, 1923, and he was accompanied by Charles Best. According to newspaper reports, they were not met at the train station by the mayor and a band, but this did not mean that “immense preparations for their reception had been made.” Such preparations included being “banqueted publicly and privately,” and they would unveil a memorial tablet, “commemorative of Dr. Banting’s discovery.” The tablet, installed at Alliston High School, read, “A commemorative tribute to Dr. F.G. Banting for his discovery of the insulin process for the treatment and care of diabetes, 1922. An epoch in the history of medicine. A boon to the human race.”
Between his homecoming in February and a short visit with his parents just prior to the Nobel Prize news in October, it is likely Banting had few other chances to visit Alliston during 1923. However, after travelling in the United Kingdom and Europe during part of the summer, Banting was able to meet with his parents in Toronto when he and Best were invited to officially open the Canadian National Exhibition on August 25. Best’s parents were also at the opening. Following the Nobel Prize announcement, a new focus of the whirlwind of newspaper attention was on the hitherto untold story of Banting’s time in London, Ontario, and the idea three years earlier that led to the discovery of insulin.
While Banting continued to regularly write to his parents, incessant demands on his time limited his trips home. In 1925, Fred’s brother, Thompson, undertook significant renovations to the farmhouse on the Banting Homestead, dismantling much of the old house and reconstructing it into a smaller eight-room building on the same foundation. As Banting struggled with the frustrations of his post-insulin research work at the University of Toronto, his thoughts were often drawn back to the simpler time of his growing up on the Banting Homestead. Such thoughts helped inspired his renewed interest in drawing and painting, and in writing, including fiction based on his life in Alliston, as well as plans to write an autobiography. Family obligations brought Banting back to Alliston on occasion, particularly when his father died in 1929, and to see his aging mother. He visited her on December 1, 1940, by which time she was bedridden. On December 2, Banting was back in Toronto when he received the news that she had died. Some fourteen months later, Frederick Banting himself was dead, tragically killed in a plane crash near Gander, Newfoundland, on his way to the United Kingdom, eager to contribute more to the war effort in person. Banting’s death prompted new attention to his life story, including his early life in Alliston and on the Banting Homestead, some of which resulting in published biographies, most notably in 1946 and 1959.
In 1952, ownership of the Banting Homestead shifted from Thompson Banting to his son, Edward, who purchased the property for $15,000. Edward had a clear interest in preserving and promoting the historical significance of the Banting Homestead based on it being his uncle Fred’s birthplace. However, as the property remained a working farm, Edward’s available time for such preservation and promotion was limited until he retired in 1973. By this time there had been renewed public attention to the insulin story, especially during 1970-71, which marked the 50th anniversary of the discovery. As discussed in another podcast article, in October 1970, a historic plaque was installed on the house in London where Banting lived and had his medical practice, when, fifty years earlier, he was struck by the seminal idea that led to the discovery. There had also been the restoration of Charles Best’s birthplace in West Pembroke, Maine.
While he worked as a full-time farmer, Edward Banting also dabbled as a part-time historian and genealogist, and by the early 1970s had set up a small museum in the front room of the farmhouse and welcomed tourists who were aware of the significance of the property. In 1975, Edward worked with the South Simcoe Historical Association and Essa Township to establish a permanent memorial at the front entrance of the farm property. A large, 5-ton granite ball cairn (a term used to describe a landmark or memorial made of stone or stones) was created to stand on guard of the historic property, symbolizing the impact the discovery of insulin had on the world. The cairn had a small plaque mounted on it that depicted the farmhouse with the text, “The House in Which Sir Frederick Banting was Born.”
Next to the cairn was a large boulder with a plaque on it that read: “Frederick Grant Banting, discoverer of insulin, was born November 14, 1891, on the original Banting homestead immediately behind this cairn. In this quiet rural environment he gained a deep understanding of the ways of nature. From his parents he learned inquisitiveness, resourcefulness, persistence, sincerity and true Godliness. Always fond of dogs during his boyhood, Dr. Banting was later to experiment with these animals in the discovery of insulin. Life and hope resulted for diabetics around the world. Died February 21, 1941, in Newfoundland.” The cairn and plaque were officially unveiled by Fred Banting’s widow, Henrietta Banting. On September 14, 1975.
Beginning at the end of the 1970s, Edward Banting invited representatives from the Ontario Historical Society (OHS) to periodically visit the homestead property to discuss its future. Edward was first introduced to the OHS in 1968 by a local historian, Burton Ford. They became friends and were involved with the Essa Historical Society. Convinced that the OHS would do the right thing with Frederick Banting’s birthplace, in 1988, Edward quietly updated his will to stipulate the donation of the Banting homestead to the Ontario Historical Society. A decade later, on November 29, 1998, Edward Banting died, and with the closure of his estate in September 1999, title to the homestead was conveyed to the OHS. It seemed to all concerned that Edward had done the right thing.
However, over the next five years, the OHS did nothing with the buildings and property, despite considerable lobbying, especially from members of the Banting family, other than some stop-gap maintenance. The rich farmland was rented out to a local farmer. This, as Edward planned, provided some income to the OHS, but it appeared that little of it was invested in the buildings and property. Members of the Banting family and others in the Alliston community interested in seeing that the site of Frederick Banting’s birthplace was appropriately preserved and promoted, established the “Sir Frederick Banting Education Committee” in 1995. However, this Committee’s efforts were frustrated by the OHS’s apparent disinterest in even maintaining the property. This disinterest was driven by the OHS’s own financial difficulties and their viewing the site’s potential more as an asset to sell to developers than as an asset to preserve and develop into a substantive historical site as Banting’s birthplace. The first attempt to preserve the property came from Jim Wilson, the local MPP. It was a bill partly crafted by Dr. Peter M. Banting. That bill made it past second reading, but it did not reach the final third reading.
By 2003, it was clear the OHS wanted to sell the property, but there was an effort by the local mayor and Banting Education Committee to negotiate a deal with the OHS to return 70 acres of the 100-acre site to the town of Alliston for historical non-profit purposes, leaving the remaining 30 acres for eventual sale by OHS. A provincially appointed arbitrator was negotiating this deal when it was discovered that the OHS had sold the property to a developer. Beyond historical preservation of the property, the Committee was interested in creating a camp for diabetic youths. However, in October 2004, the OHS reneged on a verbal agreement and proceeded with its plans to sell the property to developers, although offering to preserve the small portion immediately around the farmhouse and nearby buildings.
While Edward Banting had confidence in the people he knew at the OHS to do the right thing with the Banting Homestead property, based on their understanding of its historic significance, subsequent changes in the OHS leadership resulted less appreciation or understanding of its significance. Indeed, in March 2005, the OHS’s Executive Director, Patricia Neal, who was not part of the OHS when the homestead site was transferred, publicly asserted, incorrectly, that Banting spent most of his life in London, and that his Alliston birthplace was not his home. She thus felt that the primary focus of historical preservation of Banting’s life and seminal idea should be at Banting House in London. In 1999, Banting House was formally designated as a National Historic Site based on its association with Banting and the historical significance of the seminal idea he had while he lived and worked there. Banting House was known as the “Birthplace of Insulin,” but it was clearly not where Banting himself was born and grew up.
Neal’s historically misinformed comments were made not long after Frederick Banting was ranked #4 as “The Greatest Canadian” in a CBC-TV series that aired in 2004, and shortly before the discovery of insulin by Banting and Best was recognized as “The Greatest Canadian Invention” in a CBC-TV special in early 2007, based on the votes of Canadians. And at the global level, in December 2006, the United Nations General Assembly designated November 14, Banting’s birthday, as World Diabetes Day. Amidst this broad Canadian and international attention and respect to Banting and the insulin discovery, the irony was quite apparent that his Alliston birthplace was facing imminent risk of being destroyed by an organization that was supposedly dedicated to the preservation of history.
Nevertheless, during 2006, the OHS, led by President Brian Osborne of Kingston proceeded with its plans to sell the homestead property and found a potential buyer, although the provincial Minister of Culture hoped the OHS and the local council and the Banting Education Committee would keep talking to find a way to preserve at least part of the property. In February 2006, on the 65th anniversary of Banting’s death, the Banting Education Committee was formally incorporated and renamed the “Sir Frederick Banting Legacy Foundation” and officially began to fundraise, collect artifacts, and work towards the creation of a juvenile diabetes camp in Alliston. By December 2006, the new owner of the property was not aware of the historic value of the 100-acre site before offering some $2 million for it, and then learned that the town council had passed orders in Council to designate 100-acres of the site as heritage property to be turned over to be managed by the Banting Legacy Foundation. In 2007, the Banting Homestead property and buildings were formally designated as historically significant by the Ontario Heritage Trust, and in 2008 the Town of New Tecumseth (which included Alliston) proceeded with purchasing 100 (actually 107) acres of the property after the objections to the designation by the OHS, were cleared. Work began to develop a master plan to ensure that the “Banting Homestead Heritage Park” would remain protected and accessible to residents.
The first phase of a program of fundraising, assessment and restoration of the Banting Homestead began symbolically in September 2009 with the unveiling of a plaque from the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada that recognized Sir Frederick Banting as a person of national significance. The plaque was installed next to the large cairn and historic plaque that since 1975 had marked the birthplace of Banting. Among those attending the unveiling of the new plaque were several key people. The mayor of New Tecumseth, Mike MacEachern, spearheaded the town’s rescue of the property. Bob Banting, great-nephew of Fred Banting, was the leader of the family’s efforts to preserve and promote the Banting legacy, especially through establishing the Sir Frederick Banting Legacy Foundation. Also attending was Grant Maltman, curator of Banting House National Historic Site in London, his presence underscoring the important connection between the two historic sites that preserve and commemorate different periods in, and perspectives on, the life and work of Frederick Banting and his essential role in the discovery of insulin.
It should be noted that many of the records on this story were written by Dr. Peter M. Banting, also a Banting relative. A tip that the Banting Homestead was sold to a developer came from Dr. R. B. Fleming, which resulted in the rushed designation by the Town of New Tecumseth in December 2006. Both have agreed to be named in this record.
The primary focus of the Banting Homestead Heritage Park is to tell the personal story of Banting and the rural life he grew up in during the early 20th century to help show how the values and traditions of his upbringing impacted on his character and his success. A further distinctive purpose of the heritage park is to encourage healthy living and to provide educational resources and programs for young people directly impacted by diabetes in Canada and globally.
To learn more about the further development of the Banting Homestead Heritage Park and its historical and educational exhibits, resources, and programs, visit, https://bantinglegacy.ca/
 See the articles about the history of Banting House, and the history of the Medical Building, featured with the podcast episode, “Fred’s Idea” and “Eureka!”, https://definingmomentscanada.ca/stories/episodes-4-and-5-freds-idea-and-eureka/
 See the article, “Jennie Victoria Jorden: Banting’s Diabetic Muse,” featured with the podcast episode, “Growing up on a Farm,” https://definingmomentscanada.ca/stories/episode-1-growing-up-on-a-farm/