In this first episode, Jim and Bob Banting discuss Frederick Banting’s early days growing up on a farm in Alliston, Ontario. They share stories and anecdotes of his childhood and discuss how such an upbringing may have affected Banting going forward in life.
Further Reading: Jennie Victoria Jorden: Banting’s Diabetic Muse
By Christopher J. Rutty, Ph.D
Lead Historian, Defining Moments Canada “Insulin 100” Project.
In Episode 1 of the “Life and Times of Sir Frederick Banting” podcast, a young girl is introduced who also appears in several later episodes. Her name was Jennie Victoria Jorden. Jennie’s sad story, and her significance to Banting’s personal interest in diabetes, as well as his perseverance with the research that led to the discovery of insulin, has been shrouded in mystery since several references to her appeared in early biographies of Banting. These accounts left some outstanding questions about her life and significance to Banting. Michael Bliss did not mention her in either The Discovery of Insulin, or his biography of Banting, both published in the early 1980s. But since the publication of Bliss’ books, additional research, coupled with more definitive information about Jennie has become publicly available, thanks to online genealogy resources. This new material has filled out her story.
Banting’s cousin, Fred Hipwell, was the first to speculate about Banting’s motivations behind his research that led to the discovery of insulin. The “two Freds,” as they were referred to, grew up together in Alliston, Ont. They both became physicians, and both served in the military during World War I. In 1943, Hipwell contributed a short memoir about Banting to a booklet, Banting As An Artist, written by A.Y. Jackson, to accompany an exhibition of Banting’s paintings, drawings and wood-carvings at the University of Toronto’s Hart House to mark the second anniversary of his death in February, 1943. Hipwell summarized Banting’s life up to his being struck with the idea in October 1920 that sparked the events that led to insulin. Hipwell then said, “But early in 1918 he had discussed with some of us in England, the possibilities of such a substance and expressed his desire to do research on the pancreas.” Hipwell then suggested, “Perhaps the passing of a little child in diabetic coma back home when he was a boy had after all directed his future actions.”
Hipwell was among the many people Lloyd Stevenson consulted when he wrote the first substantive biography of Banting, first published in 1946, and simply titled, Sir Frederick Banting. Stevenson provided a long list of sources, including several members of the Banting family. After writing about Banting’s childhood, Stevenson added “a curious postscript.” “Among Banting’s schoolmates at Alliston were two unfortunate children who died of infantile diabetes, a disease which is swifter and more terrible than the same ‘sugar sickness’ in adults. One of them was a favourite playfellow who lived not far from the Banting home and with whom Fred often went backward and forward to and from school.” The death of this unnamed playmate left a strong impression on Banting, Stevenson wrote. “Banting long remembers this double tragedy and infrequently referred to it.”
A book aimed at a more general audience by I.E. Levine, The Discoverer of Insulin: Dr. Frederick G. Banting, published in 1959, was the next to tell his story. Relying on published sources, Levine provides the most detail about Banting’s playmate who died from diabetes, calling her “Jane,” describing her as a tomboy the same age as Banting. Levine describes her as one of his closest friends, along with Hipwell. Jane had “dancing blue eyes and blonde disheveled hair,” but when she was about 14, she quite suddenly became ill with a severe case of diabetes. Over a period of several months, she became increasingly emaciated and eventually died. Levine observed that Banting and Jane’s closest school friends served as pallbearers at her funeral. Her death, he noted, had a profound effect on Banting. In October, 1920, some 15 years after Jane’s death, as Levine wrote, Banting’s preparation for his lecture about the pancreas and diabetes reminded him of Jane and gave him the inspiration that led to the discovery of insulin. As compelling as this account of Jane and her importance to Banting sounds, Levine certainly applied considerable artistic license to the story to build on Hipwell’s and Stevenson’s brief references to a nameless playmate of Banting’s who died of diabetes.
A few years before Levine finished his book, Charles Best provided some substantive clues about Banting’s diabetic friend after visiting Alliston in December, 1955, to unveil a portrait of Banting for the lobby of Banting Memorial High School. At the unveiling, Best was joined by Lillian Hipwell, wife of Fred Hipwell, and Thompson Banting, Fred’s older brother. After the unveiling, Thompson Banting invited Best to visit the Banting Homestead and take a driving tour around the area.
Following his Alliston visit, Best published an article in the Jan.-Feb., 1956, issue of Diabetes: The Journal of the American Diabetes Association, titled “Reminiscences of the Discovery of Insulin.” In the first paragraph, he mentioned the driving tour. “We drove along the road where Fred Banting walked to school and passed the house in which, we were told, the little diabetic girl had lived.” As Best noted, “The clinical application of the discovery which Fred Banting and I hoped to make was in our minds from the very start of our partnership. This was inevitable because part of Banting’s motivation stemmed from an interest in a schoolmate in Alliston, Ontario, who died of diabetes.” Best’s article was the first to suggest Banting’s schoolmate was a girl. Best also mentioned his own interest in diabetes began with his father’s sister, who was a nurse, becoming diabetic and dying from the disease a few years before insulin was available.
During his lifetime, Banting never publicly mentioned the friend whose life was cut short by diabetes, not only out respect for her, but also out of respect for the Jorden family. However, her memory had been kept alive within the Banting family, especially through Edward Banting, Fred’s nephew and the family historian. As is now clear from the public record, diabetes also took the life of her sister. In addition, all but two of the remaining Jorden children died young from other diseases. This sad story is told in the Jorden family gravestone, located in the Union Cemetery in Alliston, as well as in census records, death certificates and land records, which are now publicly accessible through online genealogy resources. Aware of the Jorden family’s experience, it is not surprising that out of respect for their neighbors that Fred, his siblings and his parents did not disclose the story publicly, although Fred did tell Best, and Hipwell was personally familiar with the details.
According to the Jorden family gravestone, “Jennie V.” was born in 1898 and died in 1914. The inscription also names her sisters, “Mary A.” and “Ella M.,” as daughters of “Jas. & Tilly L. Jorden.” Their eldest daughter, “Eva May,” lived a long life, from 1897 to 1967. Mary died in 1894 in infancy, and Ella lived from 1892 to 1895. Public records indicate that Ella died from diabetes. Jennie was one of nine Jorden children. All but one of her brothers named on the other side of the gravestone died between 1905 and 1913, the “infant sons” of “Jas. & Anna J. Jorden.” Anna J. Jorden must have been Jennie’s father’s second wife after Tilly J. Jorden. The brother who was not named on the gravestone was James Jorden, who, like Eva May, lived a long life. Edward Banting had maintained contact with Eva May, who remained in Alliston until her death in 1967, and from her had learned about Jennie and the Jorden family story.
Jennie was about seven years younger than Banting. Other than being born in 1898, her exact birthdate has not been given; Banting was born on November 14, 1891. It was thus unlikely Jennie and Fred went to school together or played together in the way Levine describes “Jane” as being quite inseparable from Banting and Hipwell. At the time, it was not uncommon for young girls with the given name of “Jennie” to also be called “Jane.” According to Jennie Victoria Jorden’s death certificate (her full name was given), she died on January 6, 1914, in Alliston, at age 15, with diabetes given as the cause. The name of the physician who attended at her death was Dr. J.D. Cunningham. Her death certificate stated the duration of her diabetes was two years, and that the immediate cause of death was a diabetic coma lasting 24 hours.
In January, 1914, Banting was 22 years old and in his second year of medical school at the University of Toronto. He was aware of Jennie’s diabetic condition and her rapid decline, but he would have only seen her occasionally. It is not clear whether Banting attended Jennie’s funeral or if he was a pallbearer, although Levine described a much younger Banting serving as a pallbearer along with Jennie’s other school friends. However, Banting was not a young boy when Jennie died, and her initial diabetic symptoms emerged sometime in 1912, while Banting was in his first undergraduate year at the University of Toronto.
Nevertheless, Jennie’s tragic experience with diabetes — in the context of her family’s sad experience with another daughter dying of the disease, and several other Jorden children dying young from other diseases — had an impact on Banting, although likely not in as emotionally intense a way as Levine described. At the turn of the century, children still died regularly from conditions like diabetes and infectious diseases, such as pertussis (whooping cough), which struck infants especially hard. But for both Banting and Best, who witnessed his Aunt Anna’s death from diabetes in 1917, such experiences certainly helped motivate their work during the summer of 1921, when successes with pancreatic extract began to outnumber setbacks along the road to the first human tests in January, 1922.
With the benefit of hindsight after the discovery of insulin, and after the tragic death of Banting himself in February 1941, it is not surprising that the story of a child Banting knew from Alliston dying from diabetes before the discovery of insulin, developed as it did between a single line about a “little child” in Hipwell’s “Memoir” in 1943 and Levine’s story of “Jane” in 1959. There are often personal backstories behind scientific discoveries that in the absence of historical records tend to become exaggerated or fictionalized in hindsight. The challenge for the historian or the biographer is to collect enough evidence to be able to ground their account with confidence. Fortunately, public records about the life and death of individuals have become more accessible and the difficult reality of lives such as Jennie’s, in particular, cut short by a disease like diabetes, are more compelling than any fiction.