Sadie Gairns

Diligence, Dedication, and a Devotion to Banting: Sadie Gairns

“I do not know what in the world I would do without her…She advises. She provides the detail. She controls. She is so right in her instincts as a woman in so many cases that as a man I am ashamed to be professor of [Medical Research] No man could possibly have a more loyal true and brave supporter than I have in Miss Gairns. She gives me so much & demands of me so little that it embarrasses me to express my feelings concerning the relationship. It amounts to this – When she is content then I know that I am right. When she doubts, I doubt, but when she condemns, I pity. Her only fault is that she is too much of efficiency. She demands too close to the 100 percent. She is too honest for this world.”

Dr. F. Banting, War Diary (Oct. 2, 1940)

Dr. Frederick Banting was going for a walk through Queen’s Park in Toronto to clear his mind and work through his latest insulin-related obstacle, when a distant acquaintance approached him and noticed he was accompanied by a young woman. “Dr. Banting, I believe!” the acquaintance exclaimed, “and Mrs. Banting too?” Banting quickly retorted “Not my wife. My secretary, much more important, and more difficult to replace.”[i] This woman was Ms. Sadie (Sarah) Gairns, Banting’s most trusted laboratory assistant.

Photograph of Miss Sadie Gairns, c. 1930. Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

Sadie Gairns was born in Toronto on 29 April 1898 to William Gairns and Sarah Tomlinson. As a young girl, Gairns was academically driven and frequently made the General Proficiency Honor Roll at Jarvis Collegiate Institute. She earned a Winners of Board of Education Scholarship in 1914 and simultaneously placed on the University of Toronto Honours and Scholarships list, with third class honours in French. Upon the completion of her primary education at Jarvis Collegiate in early 1915, Gairns went on to enroll at the University of Toronto (UofT) and completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in Household Science in 1919 from the University College. Gairns continued studying at UofT under J.R.R. Macleod and graduated with a Master of Arts in Physiology in 1922.

Gairns’ first introduction to Dr. Banting took place in October of 1922 when Velyien Henderson, Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Toronto, offered Gairns the job as Banting’s assistant. Gairns had been blatantly told that Banting would have preferred a male assistant but the budget would not allow for such an expense, as women were paid significantly less than their male counterparts.[ii] Regardless, Gairns accepted the position and quickly made a reputation for herself as a diligent and dedicated worker. In fact, Gairns was so dedicated to Banting and his work that she would frequently cover for him when he would have an inability to adhere to a schedule, or when he would have an ill-tempered outburst, or when he would have to escape the Medical Building to avoid a lovesick nurse.[iii] After all, Gairns was of the opinion that Banting’s research could be “more productive if he had not been constantly interrupted by people making demands on his time.”[iv]

In 1930, the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research officially began operations, based on the top floor of the Banting Institute building. Within a short period of time Gairns assumed key responsibility for the efficient operations of the entire department. To further understand this power dynamic, biographer Michael Bliss explains “[f]rom the beginning Sadie Gairns, a meticulous, well-organized researcher, had probably had a tempering influence, saving Banting from some of his enthusiasms and misjudgments. Her considerable administrative abilities also helped smooth his transition from a lone laboratory researcher to head of a full-fledged department.”[v]

Original black and white photograph showing Banting, assisted by Sadie Gairns, performing surgery on a dog. Unidentified man in background. The Discovery and Early Development of Insulin, the University of Toronto.

As Gairns gradually acquired the role of Departmental Secretary/Administrator in the Banting and Best Department, she also became completely devoted to Banting. According to Bliss, she “demonstrated more Airedale-type loyalty to Banting than any other woman in his life” and she “handled departmental detail, advised Banting on departmental policy, fronted him when he was misanthropic or depressed, kept up the tumour work and advised him on his private life.”[vi] Gairns became so integral to Banting’s work that she eventually went on to replace Charles Best as Banting’s research associate. Early interpretations of their relationship suggest a ‘brother & sister’ type bond; however, as more primary sources have become available in recent years, it becomes clear that Gairns and Banting had a much more complicated, possibly intimate, connection.

Photograph of Banting and Sadie Gairns, c. 1930. The Discovery and Early Development of Insulin, the University of Toronto.

In the fall of 1938, Gairns’ sentiments for Banting were tested when he announced that he intended to marry another one of his research assistants, Henrietta Ball. Gairns, who was growing exhausted with Banting’s womanizing, threatened to leave the lab and warned him that this relationship with Henrietta would end in a similar fashion to his first marriage.[vii] In a letter to Banting, Gairns exasperatedly states “I have never been the same since our experience in Calgary…” and goes on to question why she would continue to work with him, especially now that he is seeking the affections of Henrietta. In an effort to explain his motivations, Banting replied “I may never marry you because of only one reason and that is you should never be submitted to the trials of having a baby […] But always remember this that I loved you trust you and hold you on a higher plane than any other person in the world.” At this point, Gairns was forty-one years old and had been working closely with Banting for sixteen years. In an apparently devastating blow for Gairns, Banting and Henrietta were married in June 1939.

When war was declared shortly after his second wedding Banting felt a patriotic duty to help in the war effort. Although Banting had been involved in potential war-related medical research work prior to the start of the Second World War, he became even more engaged in military efforts by applying his scientific mind to assisting Wilbur Franks with the invention of the G-suit, designed to prevent pilots from going unconscious while subjected to g-forces. Banting was scheduled to demonstrate this new G-suit in London, England in February 1941. Interestingly, Gairns was among the only people to object to his travelling abroad, even threatening to leave the department if he were to go overseas. Gairns feared that if Banting went to England then he would not return. Despite her fears and objections, Banting followed through with his travel plans, recalling that “Miss Gairns’ good-bye was deep and yet I think she was proud. She did her best to hold in. When I told her I wanted to be as useful as possible, she said, ‘That is the trouble – you may be so useful over there that they may not let you come back.’”[viii] On 20 February 1941, Banting boarded a Lockheed Hudson Bomber departing from Gander, Newfoundland. Shortly after takeoff, the plane began experiencing engine trouble and crash landed 16 kilometers south of Musgrave Harbour.

Following the death of Frederick Banting, Gairns resigned from the Department of Medical Research in the spring of 1941 – partly out of grief and partly because she was enraged that Charles Best succeeded Banting as head of the Banting & Best Department of Medical Research. According to Writing History: A Professor’s Life, by Michael Bliss, Gairns “felt that Best had contributed little to the discovery of insulin, and had then disqualified himself from whatever glory he deserved by pestering Banting in every possible way to give him more power and influence in the university.”[ix] Gairns also told Bliss that she resented Best regarding Banting’s death because it was originally Best who was scheduled to go on that fateful trip to England but had abruptly backed out thus leaving Banting to go in his place.[x]

Photograph of Miss Sadie Gairns sitting at desk, c. 1930. The Discovery and Early Development of Insulin, the University of Toronto.

From that point on, little is known about the life of Miss Sadie Gairns. She stopped working altogether and gradually became a recluse, with her only outing consisting of annual visits to the Canadian National Exhibition – an event Banting had interest in after he was invited to the official 1923 opening. To support herself, Bliss suspects that Gairns sold a series of Banting artworks, many of which were gifts from Banting over their years together. On 3 November 1986, Sadie Gairns died in Toronto at the age of ninety. When Bliss and a lawyer went through her possessions – she had no surviving relatives – they discovered half a dozen Banting sketches, then worth perhaps $3000 each, tucked away in boxes at the bottom corner of one of her closets.[xi] In 2018 “The Lab”, a painting by Banting and gifted to Gairns which depicts the primary laboratory where he co-discovered insulin, was put up for auction and sold for $313,250.

Gairns worked closely alongside Banting for nineteen years and her name appears next to his on seven research papers published between 1924 and 1934, including “Resistance to Rous Sarcoma” (1934). Banting went so far as to insist that her name appear on “Factors Influencing the Production of Insulin”, published by the American Journal of Physiology in March 1924, even though she objected to the idea numerous times. And yet, little is known about this woman, whose assistance Banting himself described as indispensable and valuable.[xii]




When Gairns was graduating from her undergraduate program at the University of Toronto, in a moment of self-reflection and chance foreshadowing, she submitted her yearbook quote as “The years that try and make and mend have proved her worth the title friend […] Now she leaves a record here, good portent of her future career.”
(University of Toronto Yearbook, 1919)

[i] Michael Bliss, Banting: A Biography, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 241.

[ii] Ibid., 117.

[iii] Ibid., 141 & 241.

[iv] Ibid., 140

[v] Ibid., 186-187.

[vi] Ibid., 240-241.

[vii] Ibid., 249.

[viii] Ibid., 299

[ix] Michael Bliss, Writing History: A Professor’s Life, (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2011), 196.

[x] Ibid., 197.

[xi] Bliss, Banting: A Biography, 5.