Henrietta Ball Banting
It may come as a surprise to many who claim to know about Dr. Frederick Banting that several years after his divorce from first wife, Marion Robertson, he got remarried to a young Henrietta Ball, who was 21 years his junior. Lady Banting, as Henrietta would become famously known, was a highly accomplished obstetrician, and the champion of routine mammography and breast cancer prevention in Canada. One can argue that Henrietta Banting’s accomplishments at very least equal that of her husband’s in medicine and research. Throughout her life, however, she would always be referred to as Lady Banting, with her husband’s accomplishments overshadowing hers, and unlike her husband, whose fame grew posthumously, Henrietta’s story would quickly get filed into the archives of Toronto’s medical history.
Lady Banting was born Henrietta Elizabeth Ball on 14 March, 1913 in Stanstead, Québec. The first of three sisters, Henrietta was very young when her mother moved her and her sisters from their family farm to Newcastle, New Brunswick after her father died. As a young woman, Henrietta attended McGill University for a year before transferring to Mount Allison in Sackville, New Brunswick to complete her Bachelor of Arts in Biology in 1932. She then worked as a laboratory technician for three years at St. John’s General Hospital in New Brunswick. Taking into consideration the time period where women’s presence was scarce in STEM fields, her next step was colossal, and an indicator of the academic drive she possessed to carry out research and development. She travelled to Ontario to pursue a higher degree and enrolled in the University of Toronto’s Master of Arts program in Medical Research, while simultaneously carrying out her own research at the Banting Institute, working as Fredrick Banting’s research assistant. Her work ethic and intellect are a clear indication of her academic capabilities. It has been difficult to find details about Henrietta and Banting’s courtship during her time at the Banting Institute, as she had asked her executor in 1947 to destroy all of the love letters Banting had ever sent her. It is, however, known that after completing her MA in 1938, Henrietta had moved to London, Ontario to carry out further research, but was intently tracked down by Banting. She eventually married Dr. Banting in June 1939, at a private ceremony in Toronto, becoming not simply Mrs., but Lady Banting, as he had been knighted only a few years prior in 1934. Young Henrietta suddenly inherited a grand title, a 10 year old step-son, and the expectations of the wife to a national hero. She also became the immediate inheritor of his elaborate estate, as he was, after all, Canada’s first Nobel laureate. Banting’s portrayal of Henrietta as a wife in his diaries paints a picture of a relationship in need of time to flourish. He showed signs of insecurity around his young bride, stating in apparent absence of evidence that “she may be changing towards me”. Their age gap may have made the couple appear as an unsuited pair, especially since Henrietta had never married before, however given both their interests in medicine and devotion to research, their mutual attraction may not seem surprising after all.
February 20, 1941, was the fateful day when Canada’s national hero, a passionate research worker, a surgeon, a father and husband, Sir Fredrick Banting would lose his life in a plane crash, alongside two airplane crew members. Banting’s research got cut short as a result of this accident but it is also the catalyst that drove Henrietta into medical practice and to resume her journey of research that was cast aside while she focused on her marriage. Because of her Masters qualification and years of laboratory work experience, Henrietta enrolled in second year rather than first, at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto – only 10 months after her husband’s death. To many, it appeared that Henrietta was simply carrying forward the legacy of her husband rather than pursuing her independent passion for medicine. Like her husband had done during The Great War, Henrietta also volunteered during wartime and enrolled in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps during the Second World War. This led to further speculations that she was living a life walking in her husband’s footsteps, even though most of her classmates had enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces by the time of her graduation in 1945. She was quite conscious of the name-associated entitlements she had received as Dr. Banting’s wife, her tuition fee for medical school was waived for example. But once she became eligible to receive payment intended for education upon entrance into the army, she advised the school bursar to remove the tuition waiver.
As a widow of a national hero, her medical school journey was marked with challenges and not one of ease and comfort. She was known to all the professors, was around 10 years older than her classmates, and had to juggle her life as a medical student and a high profile widow. Her public presence at events and ceremonies was highly sought, especially during her medical school years when Banting’s sudden and tragic death was still being felt by the nation. Amidst all the ceremonial work she had to perform related to Banting’s legacy, both in Canada and abroad, Henrietta became the first Canadian woman to be awarded membership in Britain’s Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists in 1948, followed by a teaching position in Hong Kong. She then established her own practice upon her return with a well known Toronto obstetrician, Dr. Marion Hilliard. Later she was again endowed as the ‘first’ to be rewarded fellowship establishment in Dr. Hilliard’s name at Women’s College Hospital. She was subsequently appointed as the director of the Cancer Detection Clinic at the hospital in 1958 and remained in this role until her retirement in 1971. When the Cancer Detection Clinic first opened, it could only screen 24 patients monthly, whereas the need for screening facilities was much higher. Under Henrietta’s leadership, the clinic was relocated in 1966 to a larger facility, which accommodated over 500 patients monthly. The new Cancer Detection Clinic and increased access to routine mammography became a defining moment for Canadian women.
In 1967, she co-contributed to a ground-breaking cancer research study that measured the effectiveness of mammography as a diagnostic tool for early detection of breast cancer. Henrietta co-authored a study with Dr. Elizabeth Forbes, Chief of Radiology at Women’s College Hospital, the results of which were published in the Journal of the Canadian Association of Radiologists in 1967. This paper was “one of the first Canadian papers on mammography”. As a result of the publication of Henrietta and Dr. Forbes’ mammography study, Women’s College Hospital became the first hospital to use mammography as a routine screening tool for breast cancer in Ontario.
A mosaic of feminism and traditionalist tendencies, Henrietta noted in her later life “There is [… ] no need that the years spent in rearing a family should exhaust a woman’s physical or spiritual potentialities. A woman in her forties, if her mind has been cultivated in the twenties, should be able to return to community and public life”. Henrietta also advocated for women to gain better access to birth control. There was deliberation on Henrietta’s part to use Women’s College Hospital as the site for her mammography research, as it allowed physicians, researchers and also the research participants – all women – to conduct and be part of a research study, which was typically male dominated at the time, in an all female setting.
While it can be argued that the ‘Banting’ name helped push Henrietta’s medical career forward, she seemed to have used her privilege to advocate for women’s rights in the field of medicine, while she served as Vice President of the Medical Women’s Association. Following the popularity of the mammography clinic, she said that it is “more proof of the continuing need for female medical services by women”. She advocated for women’s presence in the field of medicine, and stated that women are better suited for public health and social medicine than men. “Their perseverance, their patience, and their deep concern for the welfare of others make medicine a natural career for them. Besides which, the long, arduous and tedious job is frequently better tackled by women than by men.”
Henrietta’s story presents a dichotomy, one that is overshadowed for the remainder of her life as ‘wife’ of Frederick Banting, whose heroic legacy she carried on with her medical work. Yet we also see a trail blazing woman whose achievements stood independent from that of her husband’s, and are deserving of individualised credit. Although, unlike Dr. Banting who was recognized for his original achievements for insulin, Henrietta Ball Banting is a hardly recognizable name for Canadians, despite the fact that, following her husband’s death, she resumed her journey of medicine and left a perpetual medical impact in the country. Unfortunately, following her death, her story has largely gone untold. Today we know Dr. Banting’s life story with meticulous detail but in comparison, even as ‘Lady Banting’, very little is known about Henrietta’s personal life. She never remarried with many speculating that she intended to remain loyal to her husband, while others suggest that Henrietta chose not to relive the marriage experience. Since Henrietta’s medical career began following her husband’s death, it was a societal norm during her era for women to choose either a career in medicine, or to marry and have a family – having both was not popular or feasible.
Dr. Henrietta Ball Banting died of cancer in the brain at the age of 64 in Women’s College Hospital and is buried alongside her national hero-husband, Dr. Frederick Banting at Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Although their life together was short lived, they rest in perpetuity as Mr. and Mrs Banting, partners in research, former known for his discovery to treat a deadly illness, and latter for detection and prevention of a deadly ailment.
“Lady Henrietta Banting: a Life of Service.” Canadian Medical Association journal. U.S. National Library of Medicine, January 8, 1977. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1879130/;
Janice Dickin. “ʹBy Title and by Virtueʹ: Lady Frederick and Dr Henrietta Ball Banting.” In Great Dames, 245. University of Toronto Press, 1997.
Palme, Rachel Delle, Published by bantinghouse, Bantinghouse, View all posts by bantinghouse, and Name (required). “Dr. Henrietta Banting.” Banting House, March 8, 2019. https://bantinghousenhs.ca/2019/03/08/dr-henrietta-banting/;
Popa, Denisa. “Henrietta, the Other Dr. Banting: Early Mammography Research at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital (1967).” CSTHA, August 17, 2020. https://cstha-ahstc.ca/2020/08/14/henrietta-the-other-dr-banting-early-mammography-research-at-torontos-womens-college-hospital-1967/.
 Janice Dickin, “’By Title and by Virtue’: Lady Frederick and Dr Henrietta Ball Banting,” in Great Dames (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), pp. 245-263, 249.
 Elspeth Cameron and Janice Dickin, “’By Title and by Virtue’: Lady Frederick and Dr Henrietta Ball Banting,” in Great Dames(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), pp. 259.
 “Lady Henrietta Banting: a Life of Service,” Canadian Medical Association journal (U.S. National Library of Medicine, January 8, 1977), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1879130/, 85.