Here at Banting House NHSC, we have a sizeable collection of materials of all kinds related to the life and achievements of Sir Frederick Banting. Items range from his silk top hat to a stool he once owned, from his 1920 business card to private letters, and from his Military Cross to pieces of original artwork. Very often, it’s the story related to the artifacts that grants them real significance – an old top hat is just an old top hat until you find out it belonged to Banting.
Having a story to back up the items and documents in our collection can also dramatically change the significance. To illustrate this, take a look at these two letters.
Leonard Brock was a scientist who worked underneath Dr. Banting at the Banting Institute for Medical Research at the University of Toronto before moving on to other things. The items we have here – donated by a descendant of Brock – are a letter confirming a $100 grant to Brock from the University of Toronto on the advice of Dr. Banting and a letter of recommendation written for Brock by Dr. Banting.
On their own, there is nothing especially important about these letters. In his capacity as head of a department, it was likely regular protocol for Banting to recommend people for grants and he probably wrote plenty of letters of recommendation for his students. While the letters are connected to Banting, they appear to be more representative of Banting’s job than Banting’s person.
That is – until you hear the story attached to them. In this case, the donor also included a letter from Brock’s daughter. This is what she had to say:
“I will also dig out a copy of that letter of reference Dr. Banting wrote for Dad….Did you know that, when the polio epidemic was on in 1937, Dad was working with several doctors at the Banting Institute, developing a foam rubber lung as the iron lungs were in very short supply….When the epidemic was over, Dr. Banting came to our house and gave Dad a cheque for $100 as a bonus for all the over-time he had worked. At that time, $100 was like $10,00 nowadays! Dad went out and bought his first car, a 1928 Chrysler…”
Banting didn’t just recommend Brock for a grant – he personally handed it to him on his own time. This, and the personalized tone of the letter of recommendation add colour and depth to another story about Banting.
After his experience with credit-controversy relating to the discovery of insulin, Banting remained very adamant about assigning credit only where credit was due. Although his name could have appeared on many different articles and reports produced by his department, he insisted that his name only appear if he’d genuinely contributed to the work. In one letter to a colleague, he wrote “Now Smith, you are to treat the whole damned thing as tho’ it were your own idea from beginning to end – and from now on it is. I am simply a catalyst that facilitates but takes no part in the reaction.” He was extremely supportive about the men he worked with and as passionate about the advancement of their work as he was about his own. In his unpublished memoir, he wrote: “I have helped to build a group of young men who form an institution that will live when all who now live are long since dead. Today my greatest joy is in the accomplishments of this group. I love each one of them. They have given to me much more than I have ever given them. I live again in their discoveries. I enthuse in their enthusiasm. I thrill at their successes. I defend when they are attached. I follow them wherever they may go. I cherish each letter they write to me. They are my children. They have grown up with me. In my old age they feed me and teach me. They all know more than I do about their work. They are the reason that I have confidence. They are my biggest experiment.”
Even after many of these men left his department, he maintained correspondence with them. In this letter to Dr. James T. Fallon, he congratulates him on his new position in the United States, encourages him to send updates about his work, and practically gossips about events in the lives of the other men they know mutually. In later letters, he continues to express his confidence in the men working in his department, telling Fallon they all know more about their work than he does and that they likely get on just as well if not better when Banting is away. Letters to Fallon from other men reveal that they affectionately referred to Banting as “the chief.”
It’s important to note that Banting maintained all of this correspondence – with his colleagues and with many of his patients – without the add of modern technology. He had nothing more than a type writer and his own hands. Many people today fail to maintain contact over long distances even with new modes of communication, like Facebook. He managed to make time for a lot of letter-writing on top of his own research, his personal life, his commitments as head of the Department of Medical Research and a member of the National Research Council, and his own artistic hobbies. That in itself is a considerable achievement!
These three letters, and the snippets of other documents mentioned, come together to form a story about a side of Dr. Banting that many people don’t know about. The story and the documents complement each other and ensure the continued importance of such artifacts.
What happens if there is no story to go with an artifact?
Looking at the watch we can tell a number of things
– We know the watch was made by the American Waltham Watch Company in Massachusetts; using the serial number ascribed to we found out it was manufactured in 1912.
– The back side of the watch has the initials FGB inscribed into it; presumably for Frederick Grant Banting
– The photo inside the watch is of Banting’s first wife, Marion Robertson. He married her after a whirlwind courtship in 1924 and they divorced in 1932.
– The inner inscription of the watch is what begins to create confusion. It reads “Presented by the Tecumseh House Boys, London, Mar. 20 1913.” There is no record of Banting being in London prior to his moving there in 1920. There was a hotel named the Tecumseh House in London at the time and various sports teams in London’s history have been called the Tecumsehs.
A little digging into newspaper archives show that the London Tecumsehs was a hockey team in 1913 and that after a badly officiated game in Toronto, they lost that year’s championship game to a Caledon team in 1913. In order to thank the young men for their effort, the town of London at least considered presenting the team with gold watches. But Banting certainly wasn’t on this team. We can’t even be sure that there is a connection – it may be a coincidence; the watch says “Presented BY” not “Presented TO.”
We have no way of knowing how this watch came to be used by Banting – if it ever was. Why was there a picture of Marion in it? Did he only use it while they were married? Was it given to her by him? What is his connection to the Tecumseh Boys? Who were the Tecumseh Boys?
Artifacts like this raise more questions than they answer – while this certainly isn’t a negative thing, it can be frustrating. It would be difficult for us to display this artifact – without a story, it’s just a watch sitting in a case. There’s nothing impressive about the statement “We don’t know how, but this is somehow connected to Banting.” The letters on the other hand offer not only connection but substance. An exhibit featuring them reveals a personal side of Banting many don’t know about but that was certainly an important part of his person.
It’s always nice to have the things, but it’s even nicer to have the story that goes along with them.