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Elora's connection to the discovery of insulin ... through marriage

X-ray technician Marion Robertson of Elora wed Toronto doctor on the discovery team
Frederick Banting and Marion Robertson of Elora head down a set of stairs on their wedding day.

She was an Elora woman who married one of the most famous men in Canada.

Frederick was a brilliant doctor. Marion was a beautiful, vivacious woman; tall, slim, fair-haired and blue-eyed. She was a doctor’s daughter and an X-ray technician who could hold her own in conversations about medical matters.

However, a relationship that so many people thought was made in heaven turned out to be an ill-starred romance.

Marion Robertson was born in Elora in 1896 to Dr. William and Florence (nee Wilson) Robertson. She attended school in Elora and Guelph and was a member of the Elora Presbyterian Church.

During the First World War, Marion served in Toronto military hospitals as a nursing assistant with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), an auxiliary medical service established by the Red Cross Society.

Women in the VAD were generally from families that were financially well off, and could afford to pay for their own unforms.

After the war, Marion evidently returned to Elora for a while, as the 1921 census record shows her living with her family on David Street. Then she became an X-ray technician at Toronto General Hospital. She was well-connected in Toronto medical circles. That was probably how she met Dr. Frederick

Banting, who was from Alliston, Ontario, was a professor of medical research at the University of Toronto when Marion became acquainted with him in 1923 or ’24. He had served as a battalion medical officer in France during the war. He’d been wounded in the line of duty and had received the Military Cross for bravery under fire.

But Banting’s greatest claim to fame was his part as the leader of the team that in 1922 discovered insulin. Although credit for that monumental medical breakthrough was shared with others, notably Charles Best and J.J.R. Macleod, Banting was the driving force behind the work that would save millions the lives of millions of people afflicted with diabetes.

Marion was very much involved in Toronto’s high society, and was attracted to Banting, a doctor who had become internationally renowned. She allegedly told friends that she would marry him.

Banting was smitten by the lovely woman from Elora. However, he was already engaged to a woman named Edith Roach, a Methodist minister’s daughter whom he had met in Alliston in 1911. Edith had provided Banting with moral and financial support while he was a medical student. Then, when he
had achieved financial security himself, he had bought a house in Toronto in anticipation of Edith becoming his wife.

Now Banting was in a quandary; in love with two women at the same time, and he clearly didn’t know what to do. On one occasion he brought Marion to Edith’s apartment to meet her, but Edith made it clear she didn’t want to meet Marion.

In May of 1924, Edith’s mother died. The combination of bereavement and the pain of her relationship with Banting had Edith on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her brother allegedly told Banting to never bother Edith again.

In those days, breaking a marital engagement could result in a lawsuit. Edith and Banting signed a legal document in which he agreed to pay her $2,000 (about $35,000 in today’s funds) and the two agreed to have no further claims on each other. Edith also sent Banting a letter expressing her sorrow
over their lost love.

Meanwhile, Marion received a typewritten, unsigned letter warning her that the “famous doctor” with whom she had been keeping company was a cad who had a history of “fooling” women. It was highly unlikely that Edith was the author. However, the letter may have been the reason for Marion
and Banting’s hasty wedding.

Marion’s honeymoon was in a way a preview of what life would be like with a world-famous doctor. Banting was a man of great integrity and sense of duty to humanity, but he was wanting when it came to social graces and empathy for the people closest to him.

Immediately after the wedding, the couple went to the Preston Springs Hotel (in what is now Cambridge, Ontario) where Banting wrote a contribution to a colleague’s book on diabetes. Then they went to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Banting had a speaking engagement.

Their actual honeymoon trip was a 10-day Caribbean voyage combined with an international medical junket of doctors and scientists and their wives. The newlyweds sailed from New York to Havana, and visited ports in Jamaica and Central America. Marion enjoyed the parties, dancing,
luxurious hotels and fine dining.

Banting wrote papers, gave talks on insulin and diabetes, visited hospitals and a leper colony, and conferred with colleagues. He enjoyed sightseeing, but was depressed by the poverty he saw in Third World countries.

He didn’t like dancing and was content to sit and watch while Marion danced with other men.

The Bantings settled into the fine house in Toronto. They had one child, William, born on April 3, 1929. If Marion wanted to visit family and friends in her hometown, Elora was an easy train ride away.

Unfortunately, the marriage was not a happy one. Banting and Marion found they had little in common. Banting was married to his work. He had very conservative ideas about what a marriage should be. He felt a wife’s place was in the home and  she owed her husband unquestioning loyalty and obedience.

When he came home from a hard day in the laboratory or the lecture hall, he expected to have a hot meal waiting for him, after which he could relax with a good book. Marion objected when he sat down at the table wearing clothes that smelled of the laboratory and the dogs he’d been dissecting.

Marion was what her contemporaries called a “modern woman.” She wanted to participate in Toronto society, which Banting didn’t care for aside from certain special occasions. However, he would go out drinking with his pals.

Marion was a commissioner for the Parkdale district of Toronto and was prominent in the Girl Guide movement. She liked to have ladies over for tea, and was annoyed when Banting wasn’t very charming for her friends. And they quarreled over money.

The marriage ended in divorce in 1932. The story was carried in the newspapers and was considered a great scandal.

In 1938, Banting married Henrietta Ball. Then on Feb. 21, 1941, while engaged in wartime research for Allied forces, Banting died from injuries received in a plane crash in Newfoundland.

By then, Marion was an executive with the Robert Simpson retail company. She had been active with the Simpson War Service Club. She was a resident of Oakville, Ontario, when she fell ill and died on Sept. 5, 1944.

Banting has been honoured in Canada and around the world, and deservedly so. But the woman from Elora who was his first wife is all but forgotten.

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About the Author: Ed Butts

Ed Butts grew up in Guelph and is the author of more than 30 published books including Wartime: The First World War in A Canadian Town, which focuses on Guelph
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