An Unlikely Hero

An Unlikely Hero

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

An Unlikely Hero

You see things and you say, “Why?” But I dream things that never were; And I say, “Why not?”

George Bernard Shaw

Fred hated school. Having grown up on a farm near Alliston, Ontario, Fred was a good worker but felt uncomfortable and unaccepted in a town school. Although he tried hard, he was not a good student. In order to graduate, he had to repeat some of his exams. An academic career just did not seem to be in the cards for Fred, but he had a persistent streak.

After graduation, he began studies to become a minister. When that did not go well, he changed his goal to medicine, working strenuously to become an orthopaedic surgeon. World War I arrived, and the great need for field medics facilitated the early graduation of many doctors, including Fred.

After the war, the young Canadian doctor returned home to set up his practice. To his dismay, business was slow to nonexistent. He waited a whole month before treating his first patient, and his payment was the grand sum of four dollars! Fred had so much time on his hands as he waited for patients to materialize that he whiled away the hours reading medical journals. He began to focus on articles on diabetes, a disease that had claimed the life of a neighbour’s child.

Realizing that research might solve the problem of this disease, Fred decided he needed a laboratory. He approached Dr. J. J. R. Macleod at the University of Toronto. Dr. Macleod was initially uninterested—he believed Fred knew nothing about research and refused to waste laboratory facilities on him. But Fred stubbornly persisted and eventually convinced Dr. Macleod to support him. In 1920, Fred happily entered a poorly equipped laboratory and was given a young assistant named Charles Best.

In those days, there was no support in the medical and scientific communities for an unknown surgeon’s research. Fred and his assistant were given lab animals left over from other scientists’ studies. But they dedicated themselves to working long hours without pay, and Fred even sold his car to finance the needed experiments. Dr. Macleod soon grew more interested in the team’s work, and he eventually became involved in the research.

Fred and Charles worked day and night, but early results in producing the hormone preparation they called insulin were discouraging. Many of the animals they treated died, but finally one animal survived for several weeks. The team appeared to be finally getting somewhere, and it was time to move on to human subjects. Before treating human patients, however, Fred and Charles tested the safety of their insulin on each other. Their tests were a resounding success.

The first patient to be treated with Fred and Charles’s insulin formulation was a fourteen-year-old boy named Leonard. The year was 1921. For two years, Leonard had been on the “Allen diet”—a starvation diet for diabetics that allowed only 450 calories a day. The poor boy weighed only seventy-five pounds, and he was barely alive. But the new insulin treatment administered by Fred and Charles was a great success. Leonard gained weight, and his health dramatically improved. History shows that Leonard, the very first insulin patient, actually lived to adulthood.

By now, interest in insulin was growing rapidly. Charles Best developed methods for quick, large-scale production, and by the end of 1922, diabetics from all over the world were coming to Toronto for treatment. It had been only two short years from the first, rudimentary insulin experiments with animals to the successful widespread treatment of diabetics.

In 1923, the Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded jointly to Canadian doctors Frederick Banting and J. J. R. Macleod. In keeping with his character, Fred gave half of his $20,000 prize money to his assistant and friend, Charles Best. Fred then put his share of the money right back into research, establishing the Banting Research Foundation and the Banting Institute at the University of Toronto.

Fred could have made himself a millionaire with his discovery. Instead, he sold his patent for the production of insulin to the University of Toronto—for one dollar—so that the drug could be marketed cheaply and thousands of lives could be saved and improved.

Since 1922, millions of lives worldwide have been saved by insulin, and because of Fred, diabetics are able to live normal lives where before it was impossible.

Fred—Dr. Frederick Banting—was just an ordinary man in many respects, but he was a man with a vision and the stubborn will to pursue his goal. He had the heart of a true Canadian hero.

Mary Turner
Victoria, British Columbia

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