Visitors to Canada would do well to understand that it is a bilingual country, based on the fact that its origins go back to a struggle for possession between the French and the British. That struggle was finally settled in 1759 with a British victory over the French on the Plains of Abraham, near modern Quebec City. However, the British were, considering the times, tolerant rulers, and many French settlers remained in the country and have subsequently played a major role in its history. Modern Canada was established in 1867 by the British North America Act. With it came a constitution, thought it is not an imitation of the United States constitution, but rather the British constitution federalized, which includes many unwritten conventions. Today Canada is a modern “western country,” with a relatively small population for its vast territorial size. The capital city is Ottawa.
Until very recent times, Canadian science and medicine were far more closely integrated with those of Britain, but with the huge expansion of these fields in the United States from World War II onwards, Canadian science and medicine have inevitably accommodated to this fact. Nevertheless they have their own independent traditions, and are likely to cling to them.
Toronto, Ontario, is the number two city in Canada, and along with Montreal, can certainly be considered the home of Canadian medicine. It was here in 1921 that a truly great medical event took place, namely, the demonstration of the antidiabetic properties of insulin, and its subsequent use in therapy. It was the first major therapeutic application of a hormone. In its day it was sensational with its almost miraculous results. It should be made clear that there are several kinds of diabetes, but the one which has been of such importance in human history is diabetes mellitus (form the Latin, and it literally means honey diabetes). It is a chronic form of diabetes, characterized by an excess of sugar in the blood and urine, together with hunger, thirst, gradual loss of weight and other side effects commonly leading to death. It has plagued mankind throughout recorded history, and it is only since 1921 that it has been brought under control (there is still no cure) by the therapeutic use of insulin. Indeed many millions of diabetics owe their lives, and their ability to live a more or less satisfactory existence, to this discovery. Traditionally the credit for the discovery has always gone to Frederick Banting (1891-1941), and Charles Best (1899-1978), but that is certainly a simplification of the realities, if not an outright distortion, and unfortunately instead of giving full credit to all those responsible, “nationalism” reared its ugly head with the inevitable misrepresentation. The initial work was indeed carried out by Banting and Best, but this was done in the laboratory of Professor John James Macleod, a Scotsman, under his guidance and with the input of his vast experience and knowledge. In addition the biochemist J.B. Collip played a crucial role in purifying the insulin. However, there was one organization that was not intimidated by the “propaganda,” and that was the Nobel Committee in Sweden. For when they awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923, they awarded it to Macleod and Banting, albeit under a storm of protest. They knew what they were doing—but in Toronto it is still Banting and Best who are the heroes!
Frederick Bantin was born in Alliston, Ontario, and grew up on the family farm. He went to local schools, and in due course entered the University of Toronto to study theology, but soon transferred to medicine, receiving a M.B. degree in 1916. At this time World War I was at its height, and Banting was soon in the Canadian Army. He was wounded and decorated, but at the end of the war returned to the University of Toronto to study for his M.D. degree. He was briefly associated with the University of Western Ontario in London, but in the spring of 1921 returned to the University of Toronto to undertake research with Charles Best on diabetes, and this work was to be crowned with success. A year later Banting and Best were world famous, and their technique of treating diabetes with insulin is still in use today. Banting was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923, and honors from all over the world poured in upon him. The same year he became Director of Medical Research at the University of Toronto, and the following year was knighted. He himself pursued an active research career, mainly in the fields of cancer and heart disease. In 1939 World War II started, and Banting was again quickly in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. This ended in tragedy, for in 1941 he was killed in an air crash in Newfoundland while on his way to England. His body was recovered, and now rests in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.
Charles Best was born in West Pembroke, Maine, of Canadian parents, who soon afterwards moved back to Canada and eventually to Toronto. Best received his education in Toronto, which was interrupted by service in World War I. In 1921 he received a B.A. degree in physiology and biochemistry from the University of Toronto. It was that summer, while he was just 22, that he worked with Banting on the diabetes problem. Despite his almost immediate fame, he returned to the University of Toronto as a student, receiving his M.D. degree in 1925, and until his retirement was actively engaged in medical research. In 1929 he became head of the university’s Department of Physiology, and in 1941 head of the newly established Banting and Best Department of Medical Research. His name is closely associated with the development of such new drugs as histamine, heparin, choline and others. He died in Toronto in 1978 and is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
The Charles H. Best Institute
112 College Street
Normal business hours.
No charge for admission.
This is a working institute of medical research.
The Old Medical Sciences Building where Banting and Best worked no longer survives. In place of it is a huge medical complex on the west side of Queen’s Park. Outside this complex is a large brass plaque which commemorates the event which took place there. However, just across Queen’s Park on College Street, is the Charles H. Best Institute. This was opened in 1953 in honor of the great work of Charles Best and Sir Frederick Banting. It is primarily devoted to medical research, but visitors are welcome on the ground floor where there are many portraits etc. of famous doctors, including Best himself. In addition they have some of the original equipment, including Best’s colorimeter, which he and Banting used in the summer of 1921. It is fascinating to see how primitive, by modern standards, this equipment was, yet they achieved so much. The equipment, documents, photographs, etc. may be seen by application to the business office of the institute. It is well worth the effort involved.
The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library
120 St. George Street
October – April, Monday – Saturday, 9.00 – 17.00
May – September, Monday – Friday, 9.00 – 17.00
Closed on Sundays and public holidays.
No charge for admission.
This is under the direction of the main library of the University of Toronto, but is a separate building (opened 1973) devoted to rare books and special collections. There is also a display area on the second floor, where there are regularly changing exhibitions. There are particularly fine collections in English literature, Italian Renaissance literature and for our particular purposes, incredible collections of science and medicine from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Included amongst these is perhaps the finest Darwinian collection outside the Cambridge University Library in England (see under Cambridge, England). We cannot recommend this superb historical library too strongly.
The William Boyd Library and Medical Museum
The Toronto Academy of Medicine
288 Bloor Street West,
Monday – Friday only, 9.30 – 16.00
No charge for admission.
This institution has a small but excellent medical historical library, and a limited but very good medical museum.
The Ontario Science Center
770 Don Mills Road (at Eglinton)
Daily, 10.00 – 18.00
Small charge for admission.
This is an enormous science and technology museum. Many years in the building, it was opened in 1964 in celebration of the 100th year of the founding of the Province of Ontario.
The museum’s main function is education in a broad field of subjects, and the excellent displays range from aeronautics and astronomy to medicine and natural history. It is not necessary to mention them all here, suffice it to say there are many, and we can hardly overstress the size of the museum, it is enormous. Of particular interest to us is a complete natural size replica of the laboratory used by Banting and Best in 1921. It is most impressive. Some years before his death we had an interview with Dr. Charles Best and we asked him if indeed it was an accurate copy of the original. “Yes” he replied, “as I recall things it is very accurate, with the one exception that it is much cleaner than the original!”
Vancouver, British Columbia, is the principle city of Canada on the west coast, and is fast becoming a major cultural and scientific center.
The Charles Woodward Memorial Room
Woodward Biomedical Library
University of British Columbia
Monday – Friday only, 9.00 – 17.00
No charge for admission.
This is open to the public, but permission to use it must be obtained from
The Charles Woodward Memorial Room houses one of the finest historical medical and biological libraries in North America. In Canada it is second only to the Osler Library (which regrettably we have not seen) at McGill University in Montreal.
The library is divided into two parts, the working historical biomedical library on the ground floor, and above on the balcony is a superb collection of very rare and valuable biomedical books. On the ground floor, there are also very fine tapestries showing the history of medicine and other beautiful portraits, busts, etc. From time to time there are special exhibits on various aspects of biomedical history. This library should not be missed by anyone going to Vancouver.
This is the capital city of British Columbia located on Vancouver Island and a very pleasant ferry ride from Vancouver.
The British Columbia Provincial Museum
Belleville and Government Streets
Daily, 10.00 – 17.30
No charge for admission.
This museum is primarily devoted to science and technology (not medicine), but we mention it here simply because it is large, excellent and very new. They have used modern techniques in all their displays, principally of biology and Indian anthropology. We cannot speak too highly of it. It is one of the best in the world.