CM . . .
. Volume VIII Number 6. . . . November 16, 2001
Frederick Banting: Hero, Healer, Artist.
(Quest Library, 12).
Montreal, PQ: XYZ Publishing, 2001.
178 pp., pbk., $15.95.
F.G. (Frederick Grant), Sir, 1891-1941.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
by Alexander D. Gregor.
"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."
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
The Manitoba Library Association
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