The Archives of Insulin

Finding the Discovery of Insulin in Canadian Archives

By Anna England

Anna England

Projects Manager & Digital Curator

Anna England is a graduate of the Master of Museum Studies program from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information and holds an MA in History and a BA in History, minoring in French. Anna has worked as a Research Assistant for Dr. Tim Cook at the Canadian War Museum and as Curatorial Assistant at the Royal Canadian Military Institute. She has also worked with the MultiCultural History Society of Ontario and Sunnybrook Veterans Centre.

The discovery of insulin is – fortunately for researchers – an extremely well-documented and archived moment in Canadian history. From personal letters of patients to medical records  and photographs, an abundance of resources can be found documenting the moments leading up to, and directly following, the discovery of insulin. 

Defining Moments Canada, along with partners and collaborators, created the Insulin100: Inspiration and Innovation commemorative project to bring the story of insulin to Canadians, with a focus on education. Our thoughtfully curated historical content and lessons support educators and students as they explore the story of the life-altering discovery of insulin in physical and digital classrooms across disciplines. Insulin100 showcases a variety of stories demonstrating the impact that diabetes and the discovery of insulin have had on Canadians over the last 100 years.

When we embarked on this significant commemoration, our historians eagerly looked forward to diving into the plethora of documentary material which tells the story. However, archives closed when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Much to our delight and relief, we found out that many of the insulin related records had already been digitized. The University of Toronto maintains a very impressive digital archive/museum, titled The Discovery and Early Development of Insulin. With the support of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, this online collection boasts: “[…] over seven thousand page images reproducing original documents ranging from laboratory notebooks and charts, correspondence, writings, and published papers to photographs, awards, clippings, scrapbooks, printed ephemera and artifacts.” The dedication to the endeavour of digitizing all these materials for the sake of accessibility is, from an archival perspective, impressive and commendable. Since the debut of Insulin100, UofT has launched their digital commemoration, Insulin100: Celebrating a Century of Health Innovation at the University of Toronto. Despite having what feels like the lion’s share of the archival materials, UofT does not stand alone in housing a vast collection of the primary sources or digital commemorations concerning insulin.

The Banting House Museum in London, Ontario has a series of wonderfully thorough Online Exhibits that explore the early life story and career impact of Dr. Frederick Banting; although an in-person visit to the museum with insights from curator Grant Maltman is always a worthwhile venture. Similarly, one need only conduct a quick online search before finding other insulin related resources, such as The Canadian Encyclopedia, 100 Years of Insulin from Lilly, the JDRF Insulin Archives, or the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. The town of Musgrave Harbour in Newfoundland, near where Banting’s plane crashed, also has an online presence, but their artifacts of note are better seen in-person and include a Banting Interpretation Centre, a replica of the Hudson Bomber that crashed, and remnants of the plane wreckage. The Maude Abbott Medical Museum at McGill University also has a brief write-up on insulin in their Canadian Health Care Stamps Exhibition, featuring the newest 2021 stamp from Canada Post to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the discovery. Even art galleries in Canada have a connection with the history of insulin, including the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Art Gallery, both of which house some of Banting’s artistic works and are readily accessible online. Of the many online collections already mentioned, one notable institution remains absent: Library and Archives Canada (LAC). 

Library & Archives Canada. Photo courtesy of Anna England.

For those in fields related to research or heritage, LAC is one of the most valuable, and oftentimes underutilized, resources available to Canadians. The sheer amount and range of content within the LAC holdings is remarkable. Granted, UofT remains top placeholder for having the most archival materials related to the discovery of insulin, but LAC has a large amount of insulin content that has not yet been digitized and is worthy of study. When the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions began to ease in early-2022, it was finally time for Defining Moments Canada – specifically me, Anna England, our Digital Curator and Projects Manager – to make the trek to Ottawa. 

While in Canada’s capital city, I took the opportunity to do an ‘insulin history tour’, so to speak, and visit all the sites that commemorate the overarching idea of development in Canadian history. The Canadian Museum of History was the first stop, with no sightings of insulin, Banting, MaCleod, Best, or Collip to be found in any didactic panel or pop-up display. Even the Chronology of Canada interactive timeline at the start of the exhibition halls was lacking any mention of the discovery of insulin. Disappointed, but steadfast, I went down the street and across the Québec/Ontario border to the National Art Gallery, to look at Banting’s “Québec Scene”. Unfortunately for me, the piece was off display for conservation work. I then went to visit our partners over at Ingenium, a division of the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology, who had a panel made about the discovery of Insulin for the Innovation Storybook as part of the Canada150 project. From there, the trip to Ottawa culminated in a visit to the national archives. 

Feeling somewhat forlorn about the lack of representation the discovery of insulin has in the narration of Canadian history in Ottawa, I went to LAC not knowing what to expect. Weeks earlier, I had requested to view archival documents, photographs, many rolls of microform, and a video (items that had not yet been digitized) that I predicted would have insulin content in them based on their limited descriptions. The first few boxes included old slide shows and microfilm of videos about Canadian history – materials that would have been presented to a young school-aged audience being first introduced to the topic. I also went through records of minutes and parliamentary addresses Dr. Banting had made during his post-Nobel years. As the hours and boxes dwindled down, I was soon left with the last item I had requested: a two hour VHS video from the Arts & Letters Club Collection that included subheadings such as “Mondo Circolo-Artisti E Litterate”, “A.Y. Jackson”, “Christmas Dinner 1965”, and “Frederick Banting”. I was skeptical, but my archival curiosity pushed through, and there it was! In the exact middle of this tape was the only known video recording of Dr. Frederick Banting in existence. The one and a half minute clip shows Dr. Banting working in his lab at UofT and, although there is no audio, he briefly speaks to the camera. 

Dr. Banting working in his laboratory at University of Toronto, CAG Matthews film footage. Video courtesy of The Arts & Letters Club of Toronto and Library and Archives Canada, 1995-0106.

In heritage work, finding the rare or the previously unseen is exhilarating. This short clip of Banting at work is no exception. In a final reflection of all the resources, primary source materials, exhibitions, and written works about the discovery of insulin, two things remain true: first, a vast majority of the archives are unsurprisingly in Toronto, and surrounding areas, because of where the discovery of insulin took place. Second, a large portion of the archival materials are heavily skewed towards the life story of Frederick Banting. Dr. Banting has been the ‘face’ of the discovery of insulin since the 1920s and, despite the tireless work of the three other integral members of the insulin discovery team, and the many nurses and female physicians who played a part in the early development, Banting is synonymous with insulin. The excitement of finding this clip of Dr. Banting in the LAC collection is not necessarily a reflection of my feelings towards his personal legacy, but rather an eagerness to share with Canadians a piece of Canadian history that they, like myself, had never seen before.

As the stewards and caretakers of the artifacts and stories that make up our shared Canadian history, our role in the field of heritage education/preservation is to showcase these pieces of cultural significance and to make them as accessible to Canadians as possible. Our mission is to engage Canadians, all Canadians, in the learning of their histories and to share with each other moments we feel are definitional. As Canadian history becomes more inclusive, we grow increasingly reliant on the dedication of archivists, historians, curators, collections managers, and everyone in-between to continue studying and showcasing the previously unseen, and to keep digitizing the currently undigitized. Widening knowledge and accessibility means a greater learning experience and a stronger individual connection to our shared heritage, all in an effort to shape a desired Canadian future.