________________ CM . . . . Volume VIII Number 6. . . . November 16, 2001

cover Frederick Banting: Hero, Healer, Artist. (Quest Library, 12).

Stephen Eaton Hume.
Montreal, PQ: XYZ Publishing, 2001.
178 pp., pbk., $15.95.
ISBN 0-9688166-3-0.

Subject Headings:
Banting, F.G. (Frederick Grant), Sir, 1891-1941.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Alexander D. Gregor.

***1/2 /4


"When he was a boy on the farm near Alliston, he used to stare at the tiny glass door on the kitchen clock with the painted palm tress and faded moon. The shy boy who couldn't spell would never have imagined, though, that one day an idea he scribbled down in the middle of the night would bring children back from the brink of death. Sitting there, staring at the clock, he could not have imagined that schools would be named after him, or impossibly, that one of the craters on the moon, named after the great scientists of history, would one day be named after him, in honour of what he had done."

Frederick Banting is an addition to the excellent Canadian biography series developed under the auspices of the "Quest Library." Like several others in the series, Frederick Banting has been prepared by an author experienced both in adult and adolescent writing and is, accordingly, a book that will be read with profit and enjoyment by both senior school students and the general adult reader. The series is characterized by a writing style that is almost novel-like, using narrative, conversation, and detail that bring the person and setting to life to become a human being with whom the reader can empathize, rather than just a national figure of larger-than-life proportions. This approach is a critically important one in any genuine understanding of those people who have shaped our history,and contributes a very useful tool to the study of Canada's development.

     Like the others in the series, Frederick Banting intertwines three dimensions: the subject himself, the professional domain in which the subject worked (in this case, medicine), and the broader national and international contexts. Each volume contains at the end a very useful chronology in which the events of both domains the subject's own life, and the larger world are presented in parallel form. In Banting's case, this was a particularly important context to bear in mind, as his life (and death) were very much shaped by the major international events of the period, particularly the two world wars. Banting was born in 1891, and so was old enough to serve in France during the Great War; and young enough to volunteer for service in the second war, during which he was killed in a plane crash in an effort to fly to Britain as a volunteer officer in the medical corps. Like so many of his generation, Banting had his values and outlook fundamentally shaped by those conflicts; and his too brief life offers an intriguing insight into what that influence was like.

     The book presents a balanced insight into a complex character. Banting, though internationally acclaimed for the discovery of insulin, and the joint recipient of the Nobel Prize for that accomplishment, was not a "research scientist" in the contemporary sense; he was a physician who used hard work and intuition (a combination of detective work and art, as he liked to think) to solve a medical dilemma that was baffling the theoreticians. The method worked in this case; but Banting's lack of theoretical sophistication meant that subsequent breakthroughs in anti-toxins, cancer, and siliconitis - were to elude him.
Nonetheless, his experience was very useful in providing a critical spotlight on the character and failings - of the Canadian research establishment. Readers are provided with insights into the interpersonal jealousies and territoriality of that enterprise, as well as of the seemingly chronic inability of the medical and bureaucratic establishment to support research and young researchers in an adequate fashion. Banting provides an almost classic case of the "outsider" initially shunned by that establishment; indeed, he was forced to turn to the more entrepreneurial and pragmatic environment south of the border to secure the funding on which his early work depended. Through all of this, the reader is presented with a fascinating and intelligible account of the process and principles that led to Banting's initial discovery and to the equally difficult and frustrating process of bringing that discovery to real-world application. In addition, the reader is given some appreciation of the human significance of a medical advance like the discovery of insulin. Through touching stories of the then hopeless victims of diabetes, readers come to a better sense of the impact of something we now so much take for granted.

     Readers are provided as well with a frank but not judgmental (indeed, perhaps too neutral) account of Banting's personal life: his hatred of fame and the life of the well-to-do; his need for solitude and discomfort in frivolous "social life"; his love of and accomplishment in art (as a close friend of A.Y. Jackson, and as a member of Toronto's Arts and Letters Club the home of the Group of Seven). We are taken as well through his difficult relationships with colleagues and partners: his estrangement from his research associates, Best and Macleod; and his broken engagement and scandal-ridden divorce. We see a man who drank and smoked too much; but we are, perhaps inevitably, left without being in a position to determine which failings were his and which were the result of the pressures placed on him by fame and world events. One troubling episode, with the advent of the Second World War, involved his advocating of proactive bacteriological warfare against Germany: an odd moral stance, seemingly, for someone whose primary identity is as a healer.

     Frederick Banting gives us an intriguing and engaging insight into an imperfect human being, but one whose impact on the world was enormous. It gives us a thoughtful insight into process and complexities of scientific research and the complex human dimensions of that process. And it allows us to understand this very significant Canadian development against the broader backdrop of the twentieth century world. In touching on all of these aspects, the book provides a very useful addition to the general literature of Canadian Studies.

Highly Recommended.

Alexander D. Gregor is a Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development, University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364