Bust of Frederick Banting (1949)
On public display, Medical Sciences Building, University of Toronto.
This dramatic portrait was considered one of the finest pieces of sculpture in Canada as of the mid-20th century. Banting’s head rises from the rough-hewn base as if from the granite of the Canadian Shield, turning his gaze with intense concentration to ponder the answer to some great medical mystery.
Banting occupies an honoured place in the foyer of the University of Toronto’s Medical Sciences Building. The bust is one of five copies cast in bronze by Loring in 1949, and was purchased by U of T for $2,000. Others were added to major art collections (the National Gallery and the Art Gallery of Ontario), or donated to medical museums in his memory. Already world-renowned for the insulin triumph, Sir Frederick Banting became enshrined as Canada’s greatest scientific hero following his death in February 1941 when the airplane carrying him to England on a military mission crashed near Gander, Newfoundland.
Frances Loring was an American-born sculptor who arrived in Toronto in 1913 with her lifelong partner, sculptor Florence Wyle. Known as “The Girls”, they made significant contributions to public sculpture in their adopted country. In 1920 they took over a run-down former church in north Toronto where they lived, worked and socialized with local artists for nearly 50 years before both passed on in 1968. By then fashions in sculpture had changed radically: In 1966 Henry Moore’s abstract Archer was unveiled outside Toronto’s new modernist city hall. Heroes on pedestals were out, and The Girls faded into obscurity.
The discovery of insulin in the early 1920s was an enormous medical breakthrough which after nearly a century remains U of T’s best-known claim to fame. When I joined the Faculty of Medicine’s History of Medicine Program as a research assistant in the 1990s, I knew the legend well: the young doctor’s flash of inspiration, his heroic struggles in the lab along with his assistant Charles Best, and their miraculous triumph where more experienced researchers had failed.
This inspiring but inaccurate account of Toronto’s great medical breakthrough persisted for decades before being overthrown in the 1980s. Fittingly, it was another U of T researcher, medical historian Michael Bliss, who rewrote the history of the discovery. Although the name “Banting and Best” retains too much resonance to be cast aside, Professor Bliss succeeded in restoring John JR Macleod and J Bertram Collip to their rightful place as co-discoverers of insulin. At the 90th anniversary of insulin in 2012, all four were officially honoured in Toronto and internationally.
The mythical Banting likewise gave way to a deeper understanding of the man. Fred Banting was a complex individual who jealously guarded his role in the discovery yet was deeply uncomfortable with the resulting fame, including the 1923 Nobel Prize (shared, to his dismay, with Macleod) and a knighthood in 1934. To escape the pressure of being the celebrated “Sir Frederick Banting” he joined A.Y. Jackson of the Group of Seven on painting expeditions in the Canadian north, becoming an accomplished amateur artist in his own right.
Although naturally shy and reserved, Banting also relaxed at the Girls’ Saturday night parties at the Church, reciting Robert Service’s poems of Yukon adventure or sketching portraits of the guests. It was in this setting that in 1934 he agreed to have Frances Loring sculpt his portrait. She was dissatisfied with her first version and threw it away. But on a second attempt she quickly captured the impression she wanted and created the plaster version on which the later bronzes were made.
After learning about the history of the piece, I understand its enduring appeal. Unlike a conventional memorial, commissioned and created posthumously, Loring’s portrait succeeded in capturing the man within the myth because of its origins in an atmosphere of mutual friendship and appreciation.
Susan Belanger, Research Coordinator at the History of Medicine Program, University of Toronto
Susan Belanger, Research Coordinator at the History of Medicine Program, University of Toronto, “Bust of Frederick Banting (1949).”