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Banting Museum

By David Mendosa

Last Update: October 23, 2009

Browsing a Web site is probably never better than visiting a place in real life, but it's certainly a lot easier. That's especially true for the Banting Museum & Education Centre.

‘It is an emotional room for people with diabetes.’

In fact, more people visit the museum's Web site than go in person to 442 Adelaide Street North, London, Ontario, Canada. That's the address of the museum, once the home office of a country doctor who discovered insulin.

For that discovery Dr. Frederick Banting earned the 1923 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine, and became Sir Frederick Banting in 1934. Even more important that these worldly honors, he won the undying thanks of millions of people with diabetes.

In the past 12 months more than 3,000 people visited the museum's Web site, says Curator Grant Maltman. That's almost twice as many as the 1,600 people who made their way in person.

It's not that the museum is all that hard to find. London is half way between Detroit and Toronto, and the Web site has a good map showing how to get there.

"We are getting more visitors here because of the Web site," Mr. Maltman says. Among visitors from 56 different countries and 32 U.S. states were some members of the Diabetic mailing list hosted by Lehigh University, he adds.

The Web site is, of course, open all year and is free. The museum, on the other hand, is usually open only Tuesdays through Saturdays from noon to 4:30 p.m. and has a small admission fee.

The emotional heart of the museum is Dr. Banting's bedroom. It was here on October 31, 1920, at 2 a.m. that he conceived the idea of extracting insulin from the pancreas.

With not enough patients to make ends meet, Dr. Banting had a part-time job teaching physiology students at the local medical school for $2 an hour. After  preparing a talk on carbohydrate metabolism, he went to bed but couldn't sleep.

On the Web site you can read the words that Dr. Banting wrote that night in bed, "Diabetus [sic] Ligate pancreatic ducts of dogs. Keep dogs alive till acini degenerate leaving Islets. Try to isolate the internal secretion of these to relieve glycosurea [sic]."

The site has also pictures of the house and of the office. I only wish that we could see the bedroom itself.

"The bedroom is our most important exhibit," Mr. Maltman says. "We are fortunate to actually have the bed that he was sleeping in that night."

The experience often moves visitors to the museum. "When they find out that this is the room where it all began, sometimes even the scientists touch the bed or ask for a few minutes alone," Mr. Maltman says.

"At the individual level it is an emotional room for people with diabetes," he says. "Sometimes people can't enter the room. We had a family from Spain with a son in his 20s with diabetes. The whole family was in the room. But their son just stood at the door, saying, 'No, I can't come in.' After everybody had left the museum, he came back, put one foot into the bedroom, and said, 'Thank you.' I could have discussed the Banting story for the next three weeks and it would not have meant as much to him. The bedroom is a tangible piece of history."

Mr. Maltman, the museum's only paid employee, works with 12 volunteers. The Canadian Diabetes Association bought the Banting house in 1981 and hosts the Web site.

The other important part of the Web site, Mr. Maltman says, is the Flame of Hope, which is the square next to the museum. "It was lit by the Queen Mother in 1989 and serves as a reminder that a cure for diabetes has not yet been found. It will stay lit until it is."

At that time the doctor or team of doctors will be brought there from wherever they are in the world to extinguish the flame. Only then will anyone be the equal of Sir Frederick Banting in the history of conquering this disease. 

The American Diabetes Association originally published this article on its Web site as one of my “About the Internet” columns.

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