The Youth of Bill Banting

This summer, I have been given the wonderful opportunity to work at the Banting House National Historic Site archives. We are working to get all of the documents preserved in the archives entered into our digital fonds system, allowing researchers to more easily access our collection of materiel. Part of the job includes creating a short description of what the piece is. And while a number of the documents cover information only tangentially related to Dr. Banting, most are interesting connections to the family surrounding the man. Some letters in the collection concern the personal life of Dr. Banting’s  first wife before, and after, the 1932 divorce. Others include copies of newspapers that originally reported on insulin in 1922. While some amongst these are deeply interesting for understanding the sheer impact of Dr. Banting’s discovery, other records resound on a more emotional level. The documents concerning William Robertson Banting (also known as Bill), the son of Sir Frederick Grant Banting  and Mrs. Marian Banting , are amongst these moving pieces that frequently cause a halt in my work.

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A picture of Bill as an elementary schoolboy.

Bill Banting was exposed to the turbulent life of a celebrity’s child early. Born in 1929 as the only child of the esteemed doctor and Mrs. Marian Banting, he was only 3 years old when his parent’s marriage ended in a very public divorce. While too young to remember the event consciously, it certainly was apparent to even his young mind that something had happened to separate them. It was an issue made even more apparent by the availability of his father during these formative years. Dr. Banting frequently dedicated himself to long hours in the research laboratory, often coming home at odd hours throughout the night and departing early in the morning. During his custody dates with Bill, it was often very difficult for the two of them to see each other between Dr. Banting’s work hours and the Bill’s schooling. This would continue throughout the 1930’s and the early 1940’s, even being seen in some of the correspondence between the two.

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A letter and sketch from Bill to his father.

Upon Dr. Banting’s passing in 1941, this problem still had not rectified itself. Then eleven years old, Bill was exposed to another media circus at the state funeral of his father. Being conscious of what was going on would certainly not have helped him cope with the loss of his father. Tragedy would strike soon again with the loss of his mother in 1944, leaving the teenager adrift despite the aid of friends and extended family. Yet while these losses would take a toll on the childhood of Bill Banting and his relationship to his father’s legacy, our archives show physical evidence that it was not only a youth of sorrow. Our records abound with pictures of Bill playing sports and going to camp, garnished with the typical pencil sketches of pistols and tanks found in the margins of schoolboy’s notebooks the world over. But some of the most moving are his crayon sketches of flowers. With the benefit of hindsight, one can see the love for flora and fauna that Bill would develop shine through these handmade pieces of art. These, in my opinion, show that Bill was no Dickensian child destroyed by ravages of reality, nor was he the spoiled offspring of one of Canada’s most well known medical celebrities. Rather, they reveal that he was a boy like any other, despite the more complicated elements of his youth, working to forge his own future and interests away from the looming circumstances surrounding him.

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One of the pictures that Bill produced in his youth.

When I see these archival pieces, observing the age progression of Bill and relating it to the chronology of his life, I cannot help but to think of how this was actually a man’s full existence. Like most young people, even young historians, I unconsciously think that history happens to the person in the picture, who was always the same person regardless of age or profession. A leftover of the textbook days perhaps. But with Bill Banting’s records, I can see him turn from an infant, to a child, to a teenager, to an adult and to a senior citizen all within a few hours. I can see him at his highest and get glimpses of his lowest. Above all, I can see that Dr. Banting’s only child was not consumed by his historic inheritance.  In a way, that makes not only the legacy of Dr. Banting’s life feel real, but makes me realize that I may be in the same position one day. I can only hope that I have half the interesting photos that Bill left behind to keep the cataloger awake!

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