Banting and the Second World War

Frederick Banting’s contributions to Canada’s military during the First World War are fairly well known. As a battalion medical officer he was a recipient of the Military Cross, the second highest honour in the British Empire, for heroism. However, the Second World War was also a huge part of Banting’s life and death, and his wartime medical research has effects that still echo today.

When war broke out in 1939, Banting was promoted to the rank of Major, and began to work for the National Research Council of Canada. As the head of the NRC’s Associate Committee on Medical Research, Banting’s job was to create a good working relationship between Canadian and British medical teams during the war.

One of the aspects of medical research that Banting focused on during the war was the dangers of chemical and biological warfare. He focused on finding more effective treatments for chemical injuries, such as mustard gas burns. To fully experience the treatment, he actually created painful mustard gas burns on his own leg!

The newly created Major Banting was worried that British scientists weren’t taking the threat of biological warfare seriously enough. He used his influence to create a memorandum  about the potentially harmful effects of biological threats. Discussion in the British cabinet surrounding this memorandum resulted in the creation of the Microbiological Research Establishment in the UK.

The other medical field which Banting contributed to in the Second World War was aviation medicine. Working together with Dr. Wilbur Franks (a researcher who Banting had mentored) and other scientists, Frederick Banting was part of the team that helped create the Franks G-Suit, or anti-gravity suit. Gravity was a major problem for pilots during the Second World War – when experiencing high gravity forces in the air, they would often lose consciousness, leading to their death. Franks’ suit helped combat this, and was the initial prototype for a design that is still used today in fighter pilot suits and astronauts’ suits.

In 1941, he got on a plane headed from Newfoundland to the UK with two missions in mind: to continue observing wartime medical research, and to bring some sensitive research records back home to Canada. However, on the way the plane malfunctioned, resulting in engine failure. Banting died of exposure following the plane crash at the age of only 49.

Banting smiling ww2
This is one of the last known photos of Frederick Banting, who died in a plane crash in 1941.

The research advances that Banting helped make during this time, both in Canada and abroad, were substantial. He inspired the next generation of future researchers through his work and by making the ultimate sacrifice for his country – giving his life.

This post was written by Kylie Smith. Kylie recently graduated with a B.A. in history and anthropology from The University of Western Ontario, and will be attending teachers college in the fall.

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