Banting And Best Biography

Diabetes is a chronic disorder in which either the pancreas doesn't supply enough insulin to metabolize sugar, or the body cannot use the insulin the pancreas does supply. It is one of the leading causes of death by disease in North America. There is no known cure for diabetes, but the discovery of insulin has made a vast difference to those who suffer from the disease.

Papyrus documents from Egypt described diabetes as early as 1500 BC, but it wasn't until the late 19th century that progress was made in identifying the cause. Minkowski discovered the relationship of the pancreas to diabetes and Langerhans saw islets of cells secreting digestive juices. This suggested a hormone responsible for utilizing sugar. Years were spent trying unsuccessfully to isolate the hormone in the face of a belief by many that the hormone didn't exist in the first place. Then Fred Banting had an idea.

Frederick Banting was born in Alliston, Ontario in 1891. His family were hard working, relatively prosperous farmers whose ancestors had emigrated from Northern Ireland. Banting was not a student of distinction and barely passed high school.

His family, being firm Methodists, wanted him to enter the ministry. Banting entered General Arts at Victoria College and failed part of first year. After some soul-searching and talking it over with his family he switched to medicine at University of Toronto. Before he was accepted into the Faculty of Medicine, he had to go back and pick up Arts courses he had failed and even in Medical School he was not a high achiever. The First World War broke out while he was at U of T and he tried to sign up with the Canadian Army. Twice he was turned down because of his poor eyesight. On the third try in his third year of medicine he was accepted. His medical training was accelerated into a condensed course and he became a medical officer in the army. In 1917 he made it overseas. While in service, he was injured and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery.

After his discharge from the army in 1919, he set up practise in London, Ontario and became engaged to his high school sweetheart, Edith. Starting his own practise rather than taking over an established one meant a slow start to his career. Luckily, this left him time to follow other pursuits. He got a job lecturing at the University of Western Ontario and did some voluntary work in research there under Prof. Wilson. Scheduled to do a lecture on the pancreas, he did some boning up. He read a paper in a medical journal by Moses Barron about the pancreas-diabetes link, which started him thinking. He developed an idea about disabling the pancreas by cutting the duct, which would stop the flow of external hormones and allow access to the internal hormones.

At Prof. Wilson's suggestion, since facilities weren't available at the U of Western Ont., Banting approached J.J. R. Macleod, Professor of Physiology at U of Toronto with his idea. Macleod had doubts but after some consideration set him up with facilities and gave him a partner, Charles Best.

Charles Herbert Best was born in Pembroke, Maine of Canadian parents. His father was a doctor. Best studied at U of T. and had just graduated in Physiology and Chemistry. When approached by Macleod, he jumped at the chance to work for summer with Banting.

They set up their research facilities with Banting as the surgeon, Best the chemist. They used dogs for their experiments. By disabling the pancreas, they induced diabetes. Their lab facilities were primitive, money was scarce, and neither Banting nor Best had experience in conducting such experiments. Failures were followed by frustration and then by more experiments. Finally they began having positive results. J.B. Collip, a biochemist with experience in hormones and tissue extracts, joined the team and worked on the problem of preparing the extract of insulin. By Sept,1921 extracts were prepared that lowered sugar levels in diabetic dogs. Marjorie, a lab dog, was the first living creature to be kept alive using an insulin extract.

The team faced squabbles and outbreaks of ego and distrust. Banting became depressed. His relationship with his long time fiance was put on hold. Nonetheless, they persevered. News of their research spread and was announced formally to the world in May 1922 at a medical conference in Washington. The first human patient to benefit from their research was Leonard Thompson who had been admitted to Toronto Hospital in a diabetic coma. Their first attempt at administering an extract was a failure; a second try with a stronger extract produced notable positive results.

Leonard Thompson died in a motorcycle accident years later.

By now their experiments were world known and the jockeying for credit and facilities for further research increased. Banting was given space in the U of T. to set up the Banting and Best Research Centre. There was still much work to be done to refine the techniques for obtaining a viable extract and supplies were limited. Insulin now belonged to the world.

The Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology was awarded to Banting and Macleod in 1923. Banting at first was going to refuse, irritated that Best hadn't been included. However, he relented and went to Sweden to claim his prize, but turned over half his award money to Best. Macleod in turn shared his prize with Collip.

Banting's relationship with Edith was a casualty of his work. He went on to marry a Toronto socialite, Marion Robinson. It was a brief and tempestuous marriage and ended in divorce, an unusual step in the 1930's. He married a second time, to Henrietta Ball in 1939.

Frederick Banting was knighted in 1934 for his work with insulin.

During the Second World War Banting again served in the Canadian army. He was killed while flying on a medical mission from Newfoundland to England in 1941.

Best went on to practice in Britain and then returned to head the Dept of Physiology at U of T and the Banting and Best Research Dept after Banting's death. His later work included isolating heparin, a blood coagulant. During WW II he again served in the Armed Forces. In 1963, he was appointed to the United Nations World Health Organization. He died in 1978.

There is still no cure for diabetes, but the discovery of insulin has saved countless lives and made the disease more manageable for millions of sufferers, all because Fred Banting had an idea.

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