Frederick Banting and Charles Best: Still saving millions of lives 100 years later

Relatives of the iconic men share thoughts on what it's like to be a linked to a legacy, how loss drove Banting to understand diabetes and Best's role in making open heart surgery possible.

Karen Hawthorne 7 minute read November 14, 2021

Charles Best (left) and Frederick Banting will be inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame for their discovery of insulin. (courtesy Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, U of T)

A-list celebrities like William Shatner, Dan Aykroyd and Bryan Adams have stars on the sidewalks of Toronto’s Entertainment District. And now they’ll be joined by notables of science and medicine, Frederick Banting, Charles Best, John Macleod and James Collip who are to be inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame this fall.

Aptly, they’ve been called, “The Team That Saved 300 Million Lives and Counting.”

If you are one of the roughly three million people in Canada diagnosed with diabetes, you might be familiar with their lifesaving contribution to diabetes treatment with the discovery of insulin at the University of Toronto in 1921.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of one of the most important breakthroughs in modern medical history, Healthing talked to the Banting and Best families about what it’s like to be a part of this legacy, if Frederick and Charles would be satisfied with diabetes treatment today and how being inducted to Canada’s Walk of Fame is an important reminder of how much Canada has contributed to the world.

Bob Banting, Frederick Banting’s great nephew, is a retired IT developer who lives in Oakville, Ont. Mairi Best, a granddaughter of Charles Best, is an earth and ocean scientist in Sudbury, Ont. And Melinda Best, a cousin of Mairi and granddaughter of Charles, is a psychotherapist in London, England.

What’s it like to be related to one of the men who discovered insulin?
Bob Banting: I think it was in Grade 4, the teacher was taking the attendance. He said my name, and then he looked up and said, as in Banting and Best? From that point on I realized that there was some importance to that. And then I developed an interest in the history and listened very carefully to the people who knew Fred directly. I wasn’t old enough to have met Fred, but my father certainly was, and all my aunts and uncles were.

Mairi Best: I grew up on a farm and I remember I was about five, and there was a TV special on the discovery of insulin. And my parents sat me down to watch this thing and they said, it’s a program about “grandpy.” We sat and watched it and I said, ‘Did grandpy do all of that?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ That’s what it was like in my family.

Melinda Best: Wonderful in the sense it’s amazing to know that my grandfather was involved in something so great. A real sense of pride and humbling, too. It’s been very moving meeting diabetics or someone with a relative with diabetes. I can see that they are moved to meet a family member directly connected to Dr. Charles Best.

How do you feel about where we are in terms of diabetes treatment now? Have we come that far since that day in 1921?
Bob Banting: Absolutely. It’s amazing. My Uncle Angus, my father’s brother, he fell ill when he was 18 with diabetes. The needles were huge. So he made a very thin piece of metal that had a whole bunch of holes drilled holes in it. He would inject himself in a matrix that made sure that he never hit the same spot. Then he had to file a needle with a special hone blade. For the first 30 years or so, insulin was all made from cat pancreas or beef pancreas extracted by grinding up pancreas. And then of course the changes were made where they could synthesize insulin, making it more suited to people.

Now you have a device that measures blood sugars and tells the computer that is tied directly to an injection pump. It knows when and how much to inject.

Mairi Best: Yes, I think there’s been a lot of improvements in treatment, the way that insulin is administered and monitoring blood sugar. Certainly, [there have been improvements in] the management and also in early detection. I have a number of people in my generation who have been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. It’s this early warning at a stage where they can really turn things around, so that’s wonderful. I think that some of the stem cell research is really exciting too, along with the studies into the microbiome, and the relationships with the microbiome and metabolic disease in general.

Do you think Banting and Best would be satisfied?
Bob Banting: Yes, but he would say more has to be done. The classic story is that Fred Banting woke up on Halloween morning to write down 25 famous words, the hypothesis that led to the discovery of insulin. But what drove him out of his sleep? The problem with diabetes and the issue of it stirring in his mind was largely driven by Jenny Victoria Jordan, a neighbour and good friend of his growing up on the family farm in Alliston. He watched her suffer from diabetes and she died from it as a young woman. Fred didn’t talk about it because it hurt too much.

Mairi Best: Charles was certainly pleased with the way things worked out, but he was very aware that it wasn’t a final answer for a cure, and he leveraged that young opportunity into a whole lifetime of supporting basic research. He did go on and do his medical degree, but he never practiced as a doctor. So he was really a physiologist who devoted his lifetime to interesting, challenging, promising areas. He was involved with the purification of heparin in the 1930s that paved the way to be able to do open heart surgery in the 1960s. Anybody who’s ever had an open heart surgery wouldn’t have had it if he hadn’t done that work.

What are your thoughts on the Walk of Fame induction?
Bob Banting: It’s a testimony to gathering together their stories and having people recognize their story in the arts community. Banting did some art, but nonetheless recognizing that beyond the scientific community is a real surprise.

Mairi Best: I think the recognition is huge. Canada hits way above its weight and has for a long time with basic research. There’s been a tendency to talk about investment in science and technology, which is more to do with commercialization and innovation. If that research hasn’t happened and you don’t have something new to commercialize, then what? As Canadians, we have a bad habit of not being aware of how much we’ve given the world.

Do you have a favourite family memory to share?
Mairi Best: Both Banting and Best hung out with the Group of Seven and [Charles] took up painting which he enjoyed very much. He set up his studio basically down in the boiler room of their house. On a rainy afternoon, he would let us come down and watch him paint.

Melinda Best: Where do I start? All my memories are up to age 14 when my grandfather died. Just being around family at Easter and Christmas. Some nice memories of horseback riding with him in the 1970s in Prince Edward Island. Also, hearing my grandfather play the piano in his later years. I remember admiring him because he wasn’t afraid to learn something new.

Why did Banting and Best decide to study medicine?
Bob Banting: They were raising cattle on the farm and if a cow died, Fred’s father encouraged him to find out why. So he dissected the cow or fetal calf trying to find out why the darn thing died. Later on, he knew about the calf pancreas and tried extracting insulin which first worked on dogs.

Melinda Best: His father definitely inspired him. As a young boy my grandfather enjoyed helping his father, a country doctor, with patient house calls at the New Brunswick and Maine border. His father and favourite aunt, who was a nurse, made it a natural step for him to go into medicine. However, he was more interested in the research side instead of being a GP like his father.

Favourite beverage, after hours?
Bob Banting: He enjoyed a good Scotch, I think largely because of the family origin. His mom’s side of the family.

Melinda Best: Rye and ginger ale.

Tell us one more thing about Banting and Best.
Bob Banting: Fred would take time out to go back to Alliston to fish. There’s a picture of him in a boat dressed in a dress shirt. Who in the world goes fishing in their dress clothes? But if you’re busy doing the kind of work stuff you were doing and wanted to make time for your fishing expeditions, you do. He had a cottage up in French River. A lot of the photos and his paintings are actually paintings of the French River area. 

Mairi Best: He was a great dresser. And he wasn’t scared of colour. He put colours and stripes and things together that you would think wouldn’t work, but he would always look great.

Read more about the history of insulin, how to recognize the signs of diabetes and what it feels like to live with Type 2 diabetes.