From War Hero to Nobel Prize winner, Discover the Artist in the Man

Posted by martin.parnell |

This past weekend, people across Canada have been commemorating the lives of those who fought, died and still serve in the armed forces. November 14th. is the anniversary of the birth of a well-known Canadian who was not only a pioneer in medical research, but also a war hero. 

According to his biography, as posted on The Nobel Prize website: “Frederick Grant Banting was born on November 14, 1891, at Alliston Ont. He was the youngest of five children of William Thompson Banting and Margaret Grant. Educated at the Public and High Schools at Alliston, he later went to the University of Toronto to study divinity, but soon transferred to the study of medicine. In 1916 he took his M.B. degree and at once joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps, and served, during the First World War, in France. In 1918 he was wounded at the battle of Cambrai and in 1919 he was awarded the Military Cross for heroism under fire. 

When the war ended in 1919, Banting returned to Canada and was for a short time a medical practitioner at London, Ontario. He studied orthopaedic medicine and was, during the year 1919-1920, Resident Surgeon at the Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto. From 1920 until 1921 he did part-time teaching in orthopaedics at the University of Western Ontario at London, Canada, besides his general practice, and from 1921 until 1922 he was Lecturer in Pharmacology at the University of Toronto. In 1922 he was awarded his M.D. degree, together with a gold medal.”

However, it was earlier, that Banting had become deeply interested in diabetes. Dr. Charles Best, then a medical student, was appointed as Banting’s assistant, and together, Banting and Best started the work which was to lead to the discovery of insulin, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 1923, which he shared with J.J.R Macleod, Professor of Physiology at the University of Toronto,

When the Second World War broke out, he served as a liaison officer between the British and North American medical services and, while thus engaged, he was, in February 1941, killed in an air disaster in Newfoundland.

What caught my interest as I read about Frederick Banting, was not only his experiences in the First World War or achievements in the field of medicine, but the fact that he was an artist of note. I found a detailed post entitled  The determined painter: Sir Frederick Banting by J. Lynn Fraser on the CMAJ website (October 05, 2010) which  gives details about the way in which Banting applied his observational skills as well as his penchant for detail and note taking, as both scientist and physician, to a variety of artistic pursuits. 

Fraser writes: “He had hoped to pursue art full time after his 50th birthday, but died in an airplane crash in Newfoundland at the age of 49. What remains of Banting’s artistic efforts is a legacy of hundreds of paintings and sketches of wilderness scenes, rural and town landscapes and the human form. They demonstrate Banting’s capacity for intense observation and his desire to improve his skills as an artist even under harsh conditions. 

In 1923, Banting stated that “If a man thinks hard enough he can accomplish any rational task.” Banting’s achievements in science, and in art, were founded on hard work and the belief that he could overcome obstacles. In the case of art, the obstacles included learning the necessary skills.” 

We learn that “As a youth he became interested in pyrography, the art of burning images into wood. His great nephew, Bob Banting reports that his uncle made objects from wood throughout his life and was constantly whittling, as well as sketching. Banting began painting water-colours in 1920 to pass the time while waiting for patients. After his scientific success, painting became an escape from the fame and attention that the reticent he disliked so intensely.” 

We are treated to some fine example of Banting’s artwork and Fraser ends by saying: “Banting embraced challenge both in his scientific research and in his art. In both realms his methods were methodical, determined and inspired by a love of discovery. “Scientific research,” Banting said “is nothing more than the endeavour to unfold the secrets of nature. When once the law underlying natural phenomenon is understood, we are placed in a better position to govern those phenomena.”  

Art, like science, was another secret landscape Banting wanted to explore.

About the Author

Martin Parnell is the Best-Selling author of MARATHON QUEST and RUNNING TO THE EDGE and his final book in the Marathon Trilogy, THE SECRET MARATHON-Empowering women and girls in Afghanistan through sport, was released on October 30th 2018. He speaks on having a “Finish the Race Attitude – Overcoming Obstacles to Achieve Your Full Potential” and has written for, or been covered by CNNBBCCBCThe Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Runners World, Men’s Journal, Canadian Business, and Maclean’s.

In a five year period, from 2010 to 2014, Martin completed 10 extreme endurance “Quests” including running 250 marathons in one year and raising $1.3m for the humanitarian organization Right To Play. In 2016 he ran the Marathon of Afghanistan in support of Afghan women and girls running for equality. Find out more about Martin at  and see what he can do for you in the long run.

comments powered by Disqus