Episodes 4 and 5: Fred’s idea and Eureka!
In these two epidoses, Jim and Bob Banting discuss Frederick Banting’s orthopedic practice in London, Ontario, his idea to study the relation between the pancreas and diabetes, and his eventual discovery of “isletin”. Defining Moments Canada is featuring these two episodes to showcase the process that lead to the co-discovery of insulin, from the point of view of Sir Frederick Banting.
Read more about the Banting House in London
“Banting House: The Making of a Museum”
By Christopher J. Rutty, Ph.D
Lead Historian, Defining Moments Canada “Insulin 100” Project.
The first part of “The Life and Times of Sir Frederick Banting” podcast episode featured here focuses on Banting’s relatively brief time in London, Ontario, from early July, 1920, through early May, 1921. During this 10-month period, Banting lived in a rather unremarkable three-storey brick home at 442 Adelaide Street North at the corner of Queen’s Avenue. It was in this house, early in the morning of October 31, 1920, that Banting was struck by a compelling idea that led to the discovery of insulin. Banting’s idea and its impact on his life and the lives of diabetics around the world is commemorated in this same London building, known today as the Banting House National Historic Site. First opened on October 30, 1984, Banting House Museum underscores the unique power of the discovery of insulin story and Banting’s defining role in it. The six decades it took to establish Banting House also points to a long legacy of reluctance in Canada to preserve, fully document and boldly promote our own history.
The idea that 442 Adelaide Street North should be recognized as an historic site, specifically “The Birthplace of Insulin,” and subsequently converted into a “Banting Museum,” was first publicly suggested in an editorial in the London Free Press on November 13, 1923. The idea was given additional encouragement in the Detroit Free Press, on the front page of its Canadian Edition, published on December 9th, which reprinted the photo of the 442 Adelaide house first seen in the London Free Press. Under the title, “New Shrine in the Medical World,” the caption read: “The house shown here is at the corner of Queens avenue and Adelaide street, London, and is the birthplace of insulin. It was here that Dr. F.G. Banting worked out the details of the discovery which has revolutionized the treatment of diabetes and has already saved thousands of lives. The building is to be marked with a tablet and it is also suggested that it be purchased by the City of London and used as a Banting museum.”
Prior to this suggestion, very few people in London or elsewhere were aware that Banting lived at 442 Adelaide Street North when he was struck with his seminal idea. Although he did not provide the specific address of the house, it was Banting himself who first publicly revealed key details about the opening chapter of the discovery of insulin story when he returned to London on October 31, 1923. He had been invited to give a talk before a joint luncheon of the London Canadian Club and Chamber of Commerce. In the wake of the October 25th announcement that the Nobel Prize had been awarded to Banting and J.J.R. Macleod, he became the focus of intense press attention. His return to London, exactly three years after that late night flash of inspiration, was of particular personal significance. Newspaper reports on the luncheon described insulin as “one of the greatest, if not the greatest, medical discoveries of the age.” Banting said in his address, “Three years ago I came to London. For 28 consecutive days I put up my doctor’s shingle and did not receive a call from a single sick person during that period. It was just three years ago today at 2:30 in the morning that I wrote down an idea in my notebook.”
Banting’s London visit, as well as several other appearances that followed the Nobel Prize news, was to promote a new Canadian medical research institute or foundation to which he pledged a portion of his Nobel award. This initiative, which would lead to the establishment of the Banting Research Foundation, underscored, as Banting emphasized, the obstacles that prospective medical researchers in Canada faced compared to their counterparts in the United States. Amidst the intense attention to Banting’s story, especially the seminal London chapter, there was a recognition, especially among Canadian physicians, that the historical significance of the “great idea” needed to be physically commemorated in some way.
Two weeks after Banting’s London visit, a London Free Press editorial accompanied by the photo of the house at 442 Adelaide published on November 13th gave voice to the efforts of “some citizens, who have the fame and the name of London very close to their hearts, to sponsor the suggestion that the house in which Banting discovered Insulin be marked with a tablet announcing the fact.” As was noted, “The custom of marking a house in which a great statesman, patriot, artist or person of fame of one or the other description first saw the light of day is a commendable custom.” Yet, as was emphasized, “Ideas are greater even than men. The discoverer of Insulin was himself not born in London. But Insulin, acknowledged to be one of the greatest ideas in the world of remedial medical science, one of the 20th century’s supreme boons to suffering humanity, was born here. Why not celebrate that fact?” In support of a further suggestion for the City of London to purchase 442 Adelaide and convert it into a Banting Museum, the editorial pointed to “Roosevelt House” in New York City, which officially opened on October 27, 1923, to commemorate the birthplace of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.
However, despite all the attention to Banting and the efforts of physicians and the prominent citizens of London, 442 Adelaide was not purchased by the city to create a Banting Museum, nor was a tablet installed on or near the house to identify it as “The Birthplace of Insulin.” While the unfolding insulin story continued to generate press, the post-Nobel Prize attention to Banting soon eased as 1923 gave way to 1924 and life for the current owner and residents of 442 Adelaide continued undisturbed.
The house was built in 1900 for Dr. John Wright, the son of Dr. Sam Wright, who lived next door at 440 Adelaide. Dr. John Wright lived at 442 Adelaide until 1913, when the dwelling was sold to Rowland Hill, a local shoe merchant. In June, 1920, when Banting offered to buy the house to start his medical practice, the Hills were still waiting for the completion of their new home and thus arranged with Banting to remain at 442 Adelaide, which they did until the summer of 1921. Banting moved in at the beginning of July, 1920, and in exchange for board, occupied the front rooms, including an upstairs bedroom. He sometimes joined the Hills for dinner. It was not until January 8, 1921, that the final transaction was completed. Banting’s father, as well as Banting’s two brothers, helped Fred finance buying the house for $7,800, and also helped to provide a desk and chair for his office. That desk accompanied Banting to Toronto. After residing at the Banting Institute for many years, it is currently part of the “Insulin: Toronto’s Gift to the World” exhibit at the MaRS Discovery District across the street from the Banting Institute building at the University of Toronto.
On September 2, 1921, eager to finally cut his ties with London, Banting sold 442 Adelaide for $7,300 (a loss of $500) to James Henry Clark and Lila Shaw, who converted part of it into a boarding house, and the rest to accommodate several small businesses, including a real estate office. Over the next six decades, the building would continue to operate as a boarding house with rental office spaces, with little acknowledgment as “the Birthplace of Insulin.”
Following the tragic death of Banting in February 1941, Charles Best became the focus of public attention as the co-discoverer of insulin. In 1958, discussions within the American Diabetes Association and with a group of doctors began that were directed at creating a foundation to purchase the house in West Pembroke, Maine, where Charles Best was born in 1899, with the goal of creating a museum. The Charles H. Best Birthplace Trust then proceeded with buying the house and restored Dr. Herbert Best’s office as it was in the early 1900s when he had an active medical practice based in the house while Charles was growing up. In June, 1968, at the American Diabetes Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco, in the presence of Best (who was ADA honorary president), the members of the Charles H. Best Birthplace Trust formally transferred ownership of the West Pembroke house to the American Diabetes Association. As was stated after the transfer, the residence and site would be maintained by the ADA “as a symbol of gratitude from all those who owe their lives and their well-being to the historic discovery of insulin in which he [Best] shared, and to the subsequent research performed by him and those under his direction.”
On June 13, 1968, a Globe and Mail article, “Birthplace of one insulin pioneer to become historic site,” reported on the efforts to establish the Best Museum south of the border. The article then recounting the distinctly Canadian insulin discovery story, which society columnist Zena Cherry described after approaching Banting’s second wife and widow, Henrietta. Cherry asked Lady Banting, as she was popularly known, “What has been done in Canada to mark Banting’s birthplace?” She replied, “Nothing, as far as I know.” As was noted in the article, after her husband’s death, Henrietta Banting decided to study medicine and in 1958 became director of the Cancer Detection Clinic at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. “The farm near Alliston is being run by his nephew, Edward Banting,” Henrietta said. “I think something should be done, don’t you agree,” Cherry asked. Henrietta suggested, “Probably someone years from now will think about it — when there’s nothing left.”
As Henrietta knew, William Banting had bought the farm in Alliston from a cousin in 1891, earlier in the year that Fred was born, and in 1915 he sold it to his eldest son, Thompson. By 1925, the Banting farmhouse had gone through several renovations and in 1952, Thompson sold the farm to his son Edward. As Henrietta would later learn, Edward Banting would set up a museum in the front parlour of the farmhouse and welcome tourists who visited the site, which in September 1975, was marked by a cairn (a landmark or memorial made of stones) installed in partnership with the South Simcoe Historical Association. It was a large, five-ton granite ball with a small bronze plaque that showed a picture of the farmhouse where Fred was born. The cairn’s imposing size symbolized the enormous global impact of the discovery of insulin. The story of the Banting Homestead, including its importance to Banting as a home base during the intense 1921-24 period, will be described in a subsequent Banting podcast episode feature.
In October, 1970, public attention returned to London, and 442 Adelaide specifically. In recognition of the 50th anniversary of Banting’s idea that led to the discovery of insulin, the Historic Sites Committee of the London Public Library Board facilitated the installation of an historic plaque on the house. This was one of the first buildings in London to receive such a plaque for their architectural and historic merit. A further impetus behind the plaque came from Dorothy Shaw, who owned the house in 1970, and as was reported in a London magazine in June 1972, had been “distressed at the lack of recognition that had been given to Sir Frederick Banting in recent years for his essential role in the discovery of insulin.” Shaw had inherited the house in 1958 after her husband, W.R. Shaw, passed away, and he had inherited it five years earlier from his mother, Lila Shaw, who had bought it from Banting.
Among the special guests at the unveiling were Henrietta Banting, along with Dr. Israel M. Rabinowitz and Dr. William P. Tew, who were both close friends of Banting’s. Tew graduated from the University of Toronto with Banting in 1916 and he also started a medical practice in London in 1920. While standing in the living room of 442 Adelaide, Tew recounted to the guests the events of October 30-31, 1920. The plaque stated, “Sir Frederick Banting conceived the idea which led to the discovery of insulin in this house on October 30, 1920.” However, it was later realized that the date celebrated on the plaque was incorrect, although it took 30 years before a corrected plaque was installed on October 30, 2000, which read, “Dr. Frederick Banting conceived the idea which led to the discovery of insulin in this house on October 31, 1920.” By the late 1970s, the house was owned by the Gleed family. Mrs. Gleed operated her own real estate company out of the house while also managing it as a women-only boarding house. She owned several other businesses on the main floor, including a maternity shop.
As the 60th anniversary of the discovery of insulin approached, the Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA) (today known as Diabetes Canada), initiated a concerted effort to finally establish a Banting Museum at 442 Adelaide. On August 26, 1981, the CDA purchased the house for $125,000 and began the process of converting it into a museum. The first step was for the London branch and Ontario division offices of the CDA to move into the house. The London CDA branch, under the leadership of Vic Mitrow, worked with a special restoration committee, led by Dr. William L. Tew (son of Dr. W.P. Tew), to transform the former doctor’s office, rooming house, and real estate office, into a museum dedicated to the life of Banting and the impact of the idea he had in London. The goal of the restoration committee was to raise $482,000 in private and corporate donations to meet the building’s capital and operating expenses, which included a full-time staff of four, while tracking down Banting’s personal possessions that could be put on display. It was reported that a woman from Sudbury had a bed used by Banting when he lived in Alliston, and a London woman had a stool owned by Banting. As Mitrow emphasized, “What we are trying to do is establish an historical landmark, something that the Canadian Diabetes Association can identify with and which we can use to raise our public image.” Moreover, “We’re trying to complete things as fast as possible because we really think this is a first-class historical attraction. Banting showed brilliant foresight, which is more that I can say for many of us who didn’t recognize his contribution until recently.”
According to a July 28, 1982, Canadian Press story entitled, “New look set for the birthplace of insulin,” a former owner of the house had offered to donate a desk Banting had used while he lived there, and they also knew where to find original fixtures and sinks that had been taken from the house. Banting’s bed was subsequently located, as was a silkscreen Christmas card Banting had made that clearly showed the influence of the Group of Seven on his art. The restoration committee had planned to demolish the garage at the rear of the house to allow for an addition to accommodate the CDA offices, but the demolition was put on hold after it was realized the garage had been built by Fred and his father during the summer of 1920 while business was slow. It was a “Stelco kit” designed to protect open-to-weather cars of the day. One of Fred’s grandnephews offered to rescue the garage and it ultimately ended up at the Banting Homestead in Alliston. Many of Banting’s other possessions were kept at the Banting Institute at the University of Toronto, and the restoration committee planned to incorporate these items into the museum. They also hoped that a replica of the Nobel Prize could be exhibited
However, as Mitrow underscored, “It’s typical of Canadians, unfortunately, and even of our association at times, that this sort of history is barely recognized. Best’s home in the U.S. quickly became an historical shrine, while here the actual birthplace was turned into a boarding house.” In a subsequent article about the museum’s progress, in the September 25, 1982, Globe and Mail, Mitrow said, “Canadians just aren’t as gung-ho in recognizing heroes as the Americans are. If this was the U.S., you’d see flashing lights and American flags outside.” He went on to show the reporter a copy of the front page of the December 9, 1923, Detroit Free Press, that had reported on the original suggestion that a Banting Museum be established.
In 1982, with the Banting Museum under development, an application was made by the CDA to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada to obtain a national historic site designation, which would provide for the installation of an historic plaque. An application was also made to the Ontario Heritage Foundation. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada can receive some 70 nominations for new historic sites each year, with substantive nominations involving a staff member from Parks Canada researching the historical context of the site. In 1947, this Board had declared that Banting was a person of national significance. In 1970, it had also reaffirmed his place on a list of distinguished Canadians. There was thus surprise and disappointment when the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, at its March 18, 1983, meeting, decided that “the Banting House is not of national historic or architectural significance.” After an appeal, the Board reaffirmed its decision in June, 1983.
In 1983, a staff member of the Ontario Heritage Foundation also opined that the site only had significance to London, and it recommended against restoration of the house into a museum since it was predicted that few visitors would come. In June, 1984, even after University of Toronto historian Michael Bliss, author of The Discovery of Insulin and Banting: A Biography, offered his endorsement, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada once again denied the historic site designation. The Board found that Bliss’ comments did not convey enough new information to change its recommendation. Further appeals to the Board were set aside as the focus of attention of the London CDA and the restoration committee was on preparing for the official opening of the Banting Museum and Education Centre on October 30, 1984. Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor, the Honourable John Black Aird, oversaw the official opening, along with a long list of dignitaries, doctors and diabetics whose lives have been lived because of insulin.
With the house restored and the museum exhibits completed, attention next shifted to the creation of a Sir Frederick G. Banting Square just to the south. There, plans were developed for a bronze statue of Banting and the creation of a unique “Flame of Hope” stone pillar to symbolize those affected by diabetes worldwide. Work began in 1988 on the statue, designed by John Miecznikowski, depicting Banting as he wrote down his idea in a notebook early in the morning of October 31, 1920. At about the same time, work proceeded with the 2.1 metre, 15 tonne stone “Flame of Hope” pillar led by designer, Robert Geard, with inspiration and assistance from the team that designed the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. The project depended upon the Canadian Gas Research Institute, state of the art igniters, and electronic control to allow a flame to automatically relight in case of severe weather.
The completion of the Banting statue and the Flame of Hope in the new Frederick G. Banting Square were expedited so the space could be opened by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, on July 7, 1989. She would officially unveil the statue and light the Flame of Hope, which was to remain lit until a cure for diabetes was found. In November 1991, to mark Banting’s 100th birthday, a time capsule containing diabetes-related artifacts, along with messages from youth members of diabetes organizations around the world, was encased in a brick base in the Banting Square; the capsule would also remain sealed until a cure for diabetes was found.
In November, 1997, a third Banting House historical site designation application was submitted. This time the application was based on a broader framing of Banting House as a site associated with an individual of national historic significance, Dr. F.G. Banting, who had been recommended for national commemoration in 1947. New guidelines for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada Board now permitted it to evaluate the value of residences that were associated with nationally significant individuals. After further research and review, the Board recommended that, “Banting House in London is of national historical significance and should be commemorated by means of a plaque.” The Board’s Chair, Dr. Richard Always, concluded that “Banting House is an enduring reminder of the extraordinary power of inspiration combined with determination, perseverance and discipline.” On July 7, 1999, Banting House was officially designated as a National Historic Site by the Governor General of Canada, The Right Honourable Romeo LeBlanc, who unveiled the plaque, which read:
“Here in the early morning house of October 31, 1920, Dr. Frederick G. Banting conceived an idea for research that led to the discovery of insulin. He believed that diabetes, then a fatal disease, could be treated by a substance extracted from a dog’s atrophied pancreas. Banting was the pivotal member of the Toronto team that isolated and refined this extract, now known as insulin. In January 1922, insulin showed spectacular test results and became a lifesaving therapy worldwide. Banting House, known as the ‘Birthplace of Insulin,’ reminds us of the most important Canadian medical discovery of the 20th century.”
To learn more about the Banting House National Historic Site, visit: https://bantinghousenhs.ca/
Read more about the Medical Building in Toronto
“The Medical Building Story”
By Christopher J. Rutty, Ph.D
Lead Historian, Defining Moments Canada “Insulin 100” Project.
The second half of “The Life and Times of Sir Frederick Banting” podcast episode featured here focuses on events that took place in the University of Toronto’s Medical Building. Insulin was discovered there in 1921 and was developed and produced by the university’s Connaught Laboratories in the building’s basement during 1922-23. Although Banting House in London, where Banting was when the idea that led to the discovery of insulin struck, has been called “The Birthplace of Insulin,” it may be more accurate to say it was there that insulin was conceived, and then it was in the Medical Building that insulin developed, or gestated, and was born on January 23, 1922, the day of its first successful human use on Leonard Thompson. However, the metaphor doesn’t quite work since Thompson was given insulin at Toronto General Hospital, across the street from the Medical Building. Nevertheless, without the Medical Building, insulin would not have been born or survived its infancy.
There were many weak links in the chain that made the discovery and development of insulin possible, the severance of any one of them likely aborting the process, perhaps irrevocably. The Medical Building itself, as it was designed and existed at the time, and what and whom it accommodated, was certainly one of those weak links. Indeed, as was emphasized in a British Medical Journal article published on November 7, 1903, when the Medical Building opened, “A feature of special interest is presented in the research rooms. The half-unit room forms a convenient individual unit room for most research work. There are 15 of these half-unit rooms reserved for individual workers carrying on selected investigations. Indeed, the arrangements have been designed with the view of making the buildings a home of research.” Moreover, “The instrumental equipment and installation of the laboratories is well provided for, although not yet, owing to pressure of time, complete. The laboratories will, with their equipment, rank among the best for physiology in the whole American continent, and give an example, worthy of the attention of the old country, of the enlightened progress of the great Dominion in matters medical and educational.”
The distinctive features of the Medical Building that supported laboratory research, especially in physiology, certainly set it apart from most other universities in North America at the time. And when the Antitoxin Laboratory was established in the Medical Building basement in 1914 (later named Connaught Antitoxin Laboratories), the building’s distinctiveness and utility for research and its practical application in the seamless development and production of biological health products, was significantly boosted. Thus, in early November 1920, when Banting first met Macleod to tell him about the compelling idea he had, Macleod knew that the Medical Building and the laboratory and other facilities it accommodated was ideally suited to pursuing the idea as far as possible. Indeed, the unique assets the Medical Building provided to Banting, Best, Collip and Macleod were what had not been readily available to previous researchers who had worked along similar lines with pancreatic extracts in hopes of treating diabetes.
Plans for a new building to accommodate new laboratories, especially for physiology and pathology, were approved by the University of Toronto trustees in 1902 and it officially opened on October 1, 1903. As the November 7, 1903, article in the British Medical Journal noted, “Large and handsome, with an architectural dignity well suited to its academic rank, the great stone and brick building has taken only thirteen months to complete, even to the inclusion of all the internal fittings.” The new building’s construction and completion coincided with the amalgamation of the university’s Faculty of Medicine with Trinity Medical School, which finally ended years of petty rivalry, thus establishing a much stronger foundation for future medical learning and research. The University of Toronto medical school was now the largest in Canada, with 420 students, which surpassed McGill.
While still under construction, several reports about the new building were published in the spring of 1903 in such journals as Science and the British Medical Journal, and they emphasized that it was the “first to exemplify the unit system of laboratory construction proposed by Prof. Minot of Harvard University.” In 1900-01, Professor Charles Sedgwick Minot elaborated a laboratory design concept based on flexible units of a standard-sized space. As he wrote in the March 15, 1901, issue of Science, “It is evident that if the essential requirement is to provide a number of rooms of uniform and moderate size, abundantly lighted and conveniently accessible, then an architect has a comparatively simple problem, which may be carried out in a great variety of designs and may be readily adapted to special situations and conditions.” With flexible “units,” partitions could be easily removed, which offered “the great advantage of elasticity, for a laboratory director may enlarge or contract according to the needs of the occasion the accommodation for his classes.” Besides the lecture theatres, there were originally 16 units in the Medical Building devoted to physiology, with the remaining 23 units given to pathology and to hygiene.
Prior to World War I, “physiology” also encompassed the sciences of biochemistry, pharmacology and nutrition. By 1885, the University of Toronto had become the third ranking university in North America for its physiology teaching and research (along with Johns Hopkins and Harvard), due to the leadership of Professor Archibald B. Macallum and his focus on physiology science based on first-hand experimentation. Biochemistry developed more slowly out of “physiological chemistry.” In 1908, Macallum’s position as chair in physiology was split, with Macallum becoming professor of physiological chemistry and Thomas G. Brodie becoming professor of physiology. During 1917-18, after Brodie left, Winfred Cullis held the position of professor of physiology until J.J.R. Macleod was appointed in 1918. When the Medical Building opened, pathology also included microbiology and pathological chemistry. The first professor of pathology, John Cavern, was appointed in 1892, but it was John J. Mackenzie, who became chair of pathology and bacteriology in 1900, who was of most significance while the pathology department was based in the Medical Building until 1912. He was also bacteriologist for the Ontario Provincial Board of Health Laboratory, which was also based in the Medical Building from 1903 to 1911.
The completion of the Medical Building provided an opportunity to further develop a department of hygiene to teach preventive medicine to medical students and to provide a Diploma in Public Health qualification to physicians seeking to work with local and provincial boards or departments of health. Hygiene and sanitary science teaching began at the University of Toronto in 1887 and by 1896, included a Museum of Hygiene, which moved into the Medical Building basement in 1903 and included models, drawings, lantern slides showing proper ventilation and clothing, heating, plumbing, drainage sewers, sewage, water treatment, and meteorological instruments.
By 1910-11, with the consolidation of the Department of Hygiene and Preventive Medicine, the focus of teaching had shifted to include the new laboratory-oriented sciences of bacteriology, immunology and nutrition, aimed at better understanding and preventing the spread of infectious diseases. Through the drive and leadership of Dr. John G. FitzGerald, the scope and mission of the Department of Hygiene expanded into a new area of public health service with the establishment of the Antitoxin Laboratory in the basement of the Medical Building in May 1914. To make space for the Lab’s facilities, such as a general lab, a bacteriological lab, and a room for sterilizing glassware, the Museum of Hygiene had to be dismantled. Space in the sub-basement was also utilized for processing blood plasma (for preparing diphtheria antitoxin) and for packing and storing finished products. The story behind the Antitoxin Laboratory and its growth into Connaught Laboratories is told elsewhere on this site. (https://definingmomentscanada.ca/insulin100/timeline/connaught/)
When World War I started in August 1914, there were concerns about whether the fledgling Antitoxin Laboratory would survive. However, while the war disrupted many teaching and research activities in the Medical Building, the conflict and sharply growing demand from the military (Canadian and British) for several of the Labs’ biological products, especially tetanus antitoxin, led to considerable activity in the building. Indeed, there was a scramble to expand the Lab’s facilities and its staff to manage the heightened demands from the military, on top of increasing domestic public health demands. Within a year of the establishment of the Antitoxin Laboratory, it was supplying diphtheria antitoxin to all parts of Canada, providing it and other essential biological health products at much lower prices than had otherwise been the case for equivalent, or lower quality, products, imported from the United States.
However, the limits of the Lab’s facilities in the Medical Building, particularly to properly accommodate the growing numbers of horses (with help from local stables) involved in the production of antitoxins, as well as anti-meningitis serum (at no harm to them), led to the establishment of an additional site at what is today the northern limits of Toronto (Steeles Ave. West near Dufferin Street). The farm property and new laboratories built there were officially opened on October 25, 1917 (although operational since late 1916) and together with the main facilities in the Medical Building, were given the name “Connaught Antitoxin Laboratories and University Farm,” named after the Duke of Connaught, Canada’s Governor General from 1911 to 1916. A year later, Connaught was shipping its largest ever order of tetanus antitoxin, 16,000 doses (out of a total of some 250,000 doses prepared since 1915), to the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.
Just as Connaught was shipping large amounts of tetanus antitoxin from the Medical Building, northeastern North America (and soon most of the continent) was being hit by the second wave of the great “Spanish” influenza pandemic, prompting a major public health crisis that would force many closures, including of the University of Toronto. However, by mid-October 1918, as influenza cases and deaths spiked, intense work was underway in Connaught’s Medical Building labs to prepare an experimental influenza vaccine. Hopes for a possible influenza vaccine first emerged in September 1918, based on the isolation of an influenza bacterium from cases, although it would later become clear that influenza was caused by a virus. However, in the context of the global pandemic emergency and based on what was then known, there were efforts in several parts of the U.S. and Canada to prepare a vaccine in hopes that it may have some effect in preventing or mitigating the deadly effects of disease. The vaccine was prepared from influenza bacilli that was killed by exposure to heat and then suspended in a salt solution.
Connaught’s influenza vaccine production operation took place in the Labs’ cramped facilities in the Medical Building over almost two months, running 24/7 during the height of the emergency. The delicate work was undertaken by members of the Labs’ Antitoxin Division and its newly established Research Division. As the university’s student newspaper, The Varsity, reported on November 29, 1918, while the rest of the university was closed, the Medical Building lab remained opened day and night, “the lights bewildering many a night prowler.” To learn the full story of influenza vaccines production at Connaught and elsewhere during the 1918 pandemic, see my article elsewhere on the Defining Moments Canada website. (https://definingmomentscanada.ca/the-spanish-flu/research/)
On November 7, 1920, when Banting arrived at the University of Toronto Medical Building for his first meeting with Macleod, the level of activity in the building had settled into a more normal routine of teaching and research. The frenetic wartime (and pandemic) work in Connaught’s facilities in the basement had eased by the fall of 1920, with much of the antitoxin, as well as smallpox vaccine, production work taking place in the new facilities at the Connaught “Farm.” Indeed, resurgent smallpox outbreaks in several parts of Canada during 1919-21 prompted sharply increased smallpox vaccine production. For Macleod and the physiology department, Banting arrived at a time when the pace of research was slower and there was laboratory space and some resources available, including student assistance, that Macleod could offer. Indeed, as Banting and Best would discover when they began their work in May 1921, the rooms they were given to work in had not been used in some time and first needed a thorough cleaning.
By the first week of August 1921, Banting and Best marked the end of the first phase of their research with what has become an iconic photograph taken of them on the roof of the Medical Building, along with a young yellow collie known as Dog #408. They were in a celebratory mood after this collie’s experimental diabetes had been successfully treated with their pancreatic extract, which for the first time had been referred to as “Isletin.” Sometime between August 4th and 7th, Best’s fiancé, Margaret Mahon, and her brother, Henry, visited Banting and Best in the small animal operating room and lab where they had been working since May 17th. This dingy room next to the animal quarters, just under the gravel and tar roof of the Medical Building, had been sweltering that summer. To get some fresh air, they headed outside onto the roof where Henry Mahon took some pictures of Banting and Best with the collie, and with a few of the other dogs they worked with.
This famous photograph at the top of the Medical Building is symbolic of the many elements within the building that made the insulin research progress as well as it did up to and beyond this August 1921 high point. Not long before this photo was taken, most of Banting and Best’s work had moved from the small animal operating room to Room 221 in the physiology department, two flights of stairs below. This was a former surgical research lab next to one of the main labs in the department. They also utilized a research operating room in the pathology department, where assistance was provided preparing histological sections. In addition, the department of biochemistry was helpful to the work with conducting nitrogen estimation tests to measure the effects of the extract on nitrogen absorption. And starting in January 1922, FitzGerald was ready to offer the expertise, facilities and financial resources of Connaught in the Medical Building basement to expedite larger scale production of the extract for further clinical trials.
During 1922 and through most of 1923, the development and production of insulin, as well as research into its biochemistry and the physiology of its action, all but took over the Medical Building. However, beginning in the spring of 1923, plans were initiated to establish a larger insulin production facility in what had been the university’s YMCA building. By the fall, as Connaught’s “Insulin Division,” the upgraded facility was meeting Canadian insulin demand, while also exporting to many countries. Connaught’s former insulin production space in the Medical Building was renovated to accommodate the Insulin Committee Laboratory where quality control testing was done on samples sent by all the North American insulin producers.
By June 1927, all of Connaught’s remaining vaccine research and production facilities, as well as its administration, had moved out of the Medical Building and into the new School of Hygiene building, which also accommodated an expanded insulin production plant. The opening of the Banting Institute in September 1930 provided additional space and upgraded facilities for medical research that had been based in the Medical Building. Indeed, the flexibility of the unit system built into the Medical Building’s unique design was becoming a limitation to accommodating developments in medical research and education during the 1930s and particularly after World War II. By the early 1960s, it was clear that a modern Medical Sciences Building was needed. The new building would be erected next door to the original Medical Building and ultimately necessitate its demolition.
The original plan was to tear down the Medical Building in August 1969, but the work was completed in August 1968, a full year ahead of schedule due to the faster than expected construction of parts of the new Medical Sciences Building. This expedited the move of several departments based in the Medical Building into the new building. The final demolition of the 55-year-old structure was linked to the early start of construction of a new auditorium attached to the Medical Sciences Building (later named the J.J.R. Macleod Auditorium), as well as the clearing of a new entry road from Queen’s Park Circle into the university campus.
The earlier than planned demolition of the Medical Building prompted a hurried effort to preserve pieces of its legacy, especially as it related to the discovery of insulin. There had already been an initiative in early 1960s to collect historical artifacts related to the discovery for a museum display area in a bridge corridor linking the Banting Institute with the Best Institute buildings. The transom window over the door of Room 221 (which allowed in air and light when the door was closed) of the Medical Building had already been kept after new windows had been installed in the building. In 2011, the Room 221 transom window was integrated into an exhibit led by the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine titled, “Insulin: Toronto’s Gift to the World,” created for permanent display in the east tower entrance of the MaRS Discovery District complex (previously the Toronto General Hospital College Wing) to mark the Insulin 90th.
In the summer of 1968, with the sooner than expected demolition of the Medical Building, there was an effort to preserve some of its original bricks, which would then be integrated into a new insulin production facility about to be constructed at Connaught Laboratories’ main site on Steeles Ave. West. As plans had proceeded with demolishing the Medical Building, it had also been clear that Connaught’s insulin production plant in the School of Hygiene Building had reached the limits of its capacity and that a larger and modernized insulin production facility was needed. As the new insulin building was constructed, part of its front lobby integrated the collection of bricks that were recovered from the Medical Building. A plaque was prepared that said, “The bricks incorporated into the walls of this lobby are from the Medical Building of the University of Toronto in which in 1921 Banting and Best carried out the early experiments which led to the discovery of insulin. The building was demolished in 1968.” Known as “Building 86,” the new insulin production facility officially opened on November 20, 1970, with Charles Best in attendance, just as the 50th anniversary of the discovery of insulin celebrations began.
However, in July 2021, and coincident with the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin, “Building 86” was demolished at what today is the Sanofi Pasteur Canada Connaught Campus to make way for a major new influenza vaccine production facility to be called “Building 200.” Although insulin had not been produced in Building 86 since 1993, the Medical Building bricks section of its lobby wall remained intact, and prior to its demolition, was rescued and preserved for eventual display in an historical exhibit area on the Sanofi Pasteur Connaught Campus site.
Also in the summer of 1968, there was another initiative to preserve parts of the Medical Building. This effort was led by Spencer Clark (1903-1986), who, with his wife, Rosa (formerly Hewetson) (1888-1981), had established “The Guild of All Arts” in 1932 near the Scarborough Bluffs east of Toronto. Spencer was an engineering graduate of the University of Toronto in 1924 and became interested in cooperatives. Rosa was an artist from a wealthy family, but she shared a dream with Spencer to make the world better with art and collective action. She bought a former manor house and property on Guildwood Parkway and with Spencer established the Guild of All Arts.
The interest in preserving parts of the Medical Building stemmed from Spencer’s connection with the University of Toronto and an interest in preserving and exhibiting pieces of architectural history, and Rosa’s connections with Banting. She was a cousin of Banting’s first fiancé, Edith Roach, and was also a cousin of Group of Seven artist, A.Y. Jackson, with whom Banting painted and travelled during the late 1920s. Banting was also a frequent visitor to the Guild. During the post-war period, Spencer was upset at rapid development in downtown Toronto that resulted in the demolition of many architecturally significant buildings. He thus began to salvage representative pieces of some of these buildings, including the Bank of Toronto and Bank of Montreal, and move them to the Guild property for outdoor display. He also salvaged pieces from demolished homes, such as Banting’s home at 46 Bedford, where he had lived during the 1930s. Spencer salvaged Banting’s fireplace and put it on display in Guild Park, along with a plaque about its connection to Banting.
Similarly, when the Medical Building went down in August 1968, Spencer was there to salvage more than a collection of bricks. He was interested in keeping the upper portions of two of the building’s terra-cotta ionic capitals, or classic Greek columns, that made up the front façade with the main windows. Before the Spencer and Rose died, they sold the Guild Inn and surrounding property to what today is the City of Toronto, which has kept most of the park and its unique outdoor art collection open to the public. The Medical Building ionic capitals were on display by 1982, but in an upgrade of Guild Park in 2015, were placed on custom designed footings and more prominently exhibited in the “Monument Walk” area of the park. The exhibit includes a plaque that states, “Ionic Capitals. Medical Building, University of Toronto, 1904-1967. Banting and Best did their research on insulin in this building. Architects: Darling and Pearson.”
However, as has been discussed, the Medical Building was, in fact, completed in 1903, and it was demolished in 1968. But, as John Mason, President of the Friends of Guild Park, noted in an email to me, “Spencer Clark wasn’t a stickler for historical accuracy. From what I’ve gathered, he never let facts get in the way of a good story!” Nevertheless, as I replied to John, “As a historian, I tend to believe that the more accurate the facts, the better the story.” The historical facts of the story of the Medical Building, especially as they relate to the discovery, development and initial production of insulin, certainly underscore its unique and essential role in this good story and the importance of preserving and presenting its legacy.