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Sweet Remembrance of a Life-Saving Discovery

November 12, 2009 By:
Laura Kramer, JE Feature
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The sweet life -- as exemplified by these cupcakes at Covent Garden Market

 Sir Frederick Banting came to London, Ontario, in July 1920. A medical doctor, he was offered a research position at the university, and in 1921, when he was asked to prepare a lecture on diabetes, he came up with the idea that would lead to the discovery of insulin. It was an idea that changed the world in any number of ways when the inspiration led to his actually co-discovering insulin post-London while at the University of Toronto in 1921.

The Banting House National Historic Site of Canada is one of London, Ontario's must-see stops -- an emotional place for many visitors today. Some are reduced to tears as they recount the ways insulin has improved their quality of life and added years to the lives of people they love.

Prior to the discovery of insulin, the most effective treatment for diabetes mellitus was the 19th-century low-carbohydrate "starvation" diets. Insulin's discovery meant that for the 7 percent of the world's population that suffers from diabetes -- about 200 million people today -- Type 1 diabetes would no longer mean a death sentence.

After insulin went from laboratory to mass production at the Eli Lilly Company in Indianapolis, Banting was offered $1 million for the insulin patent. He turned it down, taking $1 instead, declaring that "insulin belongs to the world, not to me."

Today, London is a hot spot for medical discovery, treatment and advancement, according to Janet Tufts, executive director of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. That's why it made sense, in 1994, to build a hall commemorating doctors who have made meritorious contributions to health care in this city.

The modest hall of fame has 66 laureates on its walls, bearing tribute to a wide variety of accomplishments. There's Norman Bethune from Montreal, who introduced mobile blood banks in the Spanish Civil War. Brenda Milner, a psychologist who was a pioneer in neuropsychology, sits near Thomas Douglas, a politician, Baptist minister and boxer who lobbied for Medicare.

Banting is up on those walls, as is Robert Salter, a leader in orthopedics and, in particular, in hip bone dislocation. One display shows the pacemaker when it was invented by Wilfred Bigelow in 1950, a large metal box the size of a car battery. In the same display case, for the purpose of comparison, lies today's pacemaker, the size of an iPod.

London, Ontario, also happens to be home to the smallest Jewish community in North America to have a Jewish day school for its 2,600 families. Even so, at about 120 miles from Toronto, it has an immediate familiarity that has nothing to do with its proliferation of Canadian doughnut shops and strip malls.

Gracefully old, this city whispers history from every crevice.

Walk downtown and the old, brick buildings still bear the names of former banks and businesses long closed.

Or stroll through the University of Western Ontario, home to some 3,000 Jewish students (among the largest Jewish student population living in residence on campus in Canada).

London's downtown core is an easily walkable few blocks, and hot on the list of places to go is the Covent Garden Market. A foodie's delight, it's a place of rural and urban exchange, where Southwestern Ontario cheese nudges gourmet chocolate, pies and that oh-so-famous Canadian maple syrup. After fueling up on falafel to go, you can saunter down to the Grand Theatre, a stately venue that opened its doors in 1901 and entertains with performances to this day.

There's something about this historic theater that makes you want to dress up for a night on the town, grab the elbow of the person you love and immerse yourself in culture. Regardless of what's showing, an evening at the Grand Theatre is an experience back in time.

In fact, it transports you to a 1900s London that whispered of its counterpart an ocean away -- a city where, behind the ivy-covered walls of the university, medical discoveries were just waiting to happen.

London is a place of both storied old money and old ghosts aplenty. An oasis from the maddening traffic and bustle of Toronto, it's well worth a visit.



Sites to See


  • The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame (www.cdnmedhall. org) is located at 267 Dundas St. It's open Tuesday to Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:40 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday hours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

  • Banting House National Historic Site (www.diabetes. ca) is located at 442 Adelaide St. It's open Tuesday to Saturday, from noon to 4 p.m.

  • The London Jewish Community Centre can be reached at:

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