Friday, 5 December 2014




Sir Frederick Banting is best known for discovering the benefits of insulin for humans suffering from diabetes. His accomplishments saved the lives of a countless number of people. At the age of 32, Banting is still the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology. What is perhaps less known about him is his work as an amateur artist and his connection one of the best known artist collectives in Canada.

Insulin: Toronto's Gift to the World exhibition in the MaRS lobby

In 1910 Banting enrolled at Victoria College at the University of Toronto in a General Arts Program. After failing his first year, he readjusted his focus and enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine in 1913. His change of focus would eventually lead him to begin researching the possibilities of using insulin to control the rise of blood sugar in sufferers of diabetes. Banting's research and the discovery of insulin was an invaluable contribution to medicine, which has allowed sufferers from diabetes to live healthier, more comfortable lives.

A.Y. Jackson (left) and Sir Frederick Banting (right) on a sketching trip

Banting had a great love of art and painted as a hobby. He was close friends with several members of the Group of Seven. On numerous occasions he accompanied A.Y. Jackson on sketching trips to capture the Canadian wilderness. His work strongly reflects the style of the Group of Seven and Jackson’s influence. Banting’s spirit has a strong presence at the University of Toronto campus. The MaRS Building was constructed on the site of the original Toronto General Hospital (where Banting conducted his research) and has a permanent exhibition in its lobby devoted to Banting, his associates, and the discovery of insulin. The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has a large holding of archival material on Banting, including his travel journals from his sketching trips with Jackson. For an amateur artist, he had quite an accomplished career. He first exhibited his oil sketches in Hart House in 1925. Banting’s trips with Jackson took him to places of solitude, away from his fame and career in medicine. Banting would even sometimes go under the alias of Frederick Grant, so he could have a life in art that was separate from his career in medicine.

Banting's 'French River'

After a lifetime of working in medical research, he had planned on pursuing art full-time after his retirement. Sadly, Banting died following a plane crash in Musgrave Harbour, Newfoundland and never had the chance to realize his career as an artist. To celebrate his life and lesser known career in art, Hart House held a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1943. In addition to his lasting presence in University of Toronto medical buildings, several of his paintings are also part of the university art collection.

If you are interested in learning more about Sir Frederick Banting: visit the lobby in the MaRS Building to see their permanent exhibition on the discovery of insulin (the collection even includes Banting’s desk which was made from an oak tree that grew on the university’s property). If you find yourself in Southern Ontario, Banting House offers exhibitions which explore his many talents and contributions to Canadian history.

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