Dr. Frederick Banting’s Elora connection: Part 1

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Although the name is familiar only to old timers, William Robertson was Elora’s most popular doctor in a career that lasted 50 years. 

His daughter Marion achieved fame with her marriage to Dr. Frederick Banting, which ended in one of Canada’s most sensational divorce cases.

William Robertson graduated in medicine from McGill University in 1890. Within months he moved to Elora, and set up an office in the second floor of what is now the Elora Brewing Company on Geddes Street.

It is not certain why Dr. Robertson chose Elora. His grandfather, Rev. John Duff, had been minister at Knox Church between 1850 and 1868, but it is unlikely that the doctor would remember visits to see him. It is more likely that he became aware of an impending opening through the medical grapevine. Dr. William Savage was preparing to leave Elora. Elora’s other doctor, Arthur Paget, was over 60 and curtailing his activities.

In any case, William Robertson settled in quickly, and would practice medicine in Elora for the next 50 years. In the summer of 1891 he purchased the lot on the southeast corner of David and Geddes Street (249 Geddes). He hired John Gibb to build a house on it. This was his home and office for the rest of his life.

During his early years in Elora the doctor participated actively in sports. He had become a skilled tennis player in college, and in Elora he joined the lacrosse team and took up curling. He was one of the organizers of the Elora Lawn Bowling Club.

Although William Robertson was the first Elora doctor with a full medical education, the early years of his practice required the stamina of a pioneer practitioner. He regularly made his rounds on horseback and on snowshoes in winter. There was no hospital or nursing practitioner. Difficult cases often required all-night vigils.

William Robertson’s bachelor days ended in 1895, when he married Florence Wilson of Barrie. The couple had two children. One died in infancy. Their surviving daughter, Marion, was born in 1898.

By 1910 William Robertson had built up a very large practice. He owned one of the first motor cars in Elora, and Florence Robertson was the first Elora woman to learn to drive. As the son and grandson of ministers, he had an instinctive devotion to duty and community service. His Scottish ancestry was always evident in his quick sense of humour and his strong will, which bordered on stubborn-ness. A proud and confident man, he looked every inch the doctor.

Though his practice was large, the doctor never became rich. In the days before medical insurance, a doctor’s income could be sporadic and uncertain. William Robertson had no desires beyond his immediate needs. He performed a great deal of work for low fees, and often for nothing. He thought it beneath his dignity to press anyone for payment. As a result many well-heeled patients took advantage of him. He did not pay off a relatively small mortgage on his house until 1918.

Not one to savour idle moments, the doctor filled his spare time with activity. He joined the Elora Masonic Lodge, and served for a time on Elora council. He valued education, and sat as a school board member. When age compelled him to retire from the lacrosse team, he continued his association with the sport as an organizer and team doctor.

Meanwhile, daughter Marion worked her way through the Elora schools. On completion of her high school work she took a short course in nursing at the MacDonald Institute in Guelph. In 1918 she joined the staff at the Christie Street Hospital in Toronto, which was filled with wounded and incapacitated First World War veterans. Here she met a young returned army doctor, Fred Banting.

Attractive, gregarious, and charming, Marion adapted well to life in the city. She had connections: two uncles were doctors in Toronto, and her father knew a number of doctors in the city. After a time Marion Robertson took a better position at Toronto General, where she had charge of the x-ray and radium department. Here, in the early months of 1924, she became romantically involved with Fred Banting, the principal figure in the discovery of insulin two and a half years earlier.

The romance between Fred Banting and Marion Robertson developed quickly, and by April 1924 they were talking of marriage. There were a few problems. Since 1916 Banting had been engaged to Edith Roach, daughter of a Methodist minister at Alliston. Fearing a breach of promise suit, Banting signed an agreement with her, paying her $2,000.

Fred and Marion made tentative plans for a marriage sometime in the summer. Matters were brought to a head on June 3, when someone mailed Marion a letter threatening blackmail. It was from a woman who claimed to have had a liaison with Banting. Fred and Marion decided that the best course was to get married immediately. They scheduled their marriage for the next day.

Frederick Banting was easily the most famous and popular Canadian in 1924. To avoid a media frenzy, the couple kept the details quiet, and invited only their immediate families. The ceremony took place at the Bloor Street residence of Marion’s uncle, Dr. J.G. Craven (Mrs. Craven was William Robertson’s sister). A former minister at Knox Church in Elora, Rev. George MacDonald, performed the rites.

Following the ceremony, the newlyweds left Toronto for a lengthy honeymoon by motor car. They spent two nights at the Preston Springs Hotel, and then came to Elora for a weekend with the Robertsons before leaving for the United States.

The lengthy honeymoon continued on a Caribbean cruise in the fall. This was billed as a medical convention by its sponsor, the United Fruit Company, which wished to improve its image by showing its concern for tropical diseases. The management invited high-profile medical researchers for an expenses-paid tour. In return, the experts were asked to read papers and discuss their ongoing research.

Mostly, though, the cruise was a holiday filled with banquets, receptions and all-night parties. Marion Banting moved happily among the famous and near famous. She delighted in dancing all night, and with her own medical background she was able to understand the work of medical researchers. She was the perfect companion for a celebrity.

Unfortunately, Frederick Banting made a very poor celebrity. He was shy and awkward in public, and disliked parties and receptions. The public had placed impossible expectations on him for more medical breakthroughs. His new research, on cancer and anemia, was leading nowhere, and he frequently exhibited frustration and anger. Several quarrels between the Bantings foretold bigger trouble ahead.

On the whole, the marriage seemed to be working during its first year. The couple built a house at 46 Bedford, just north of Bloor Street in Toronto. They spent Christmas 1924 in Elora with William and Florence Robertson.

On Aug. 5, 1925 Frederick and Marion Banting boarded the Empress Of Scotland for a trip to Europe, which included Banting’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in medicine. Marital problems were brewing, and would erupt in a sordid divorce case a few years later. 

(Next time: More marital trouble, and the sensational Banting divorce.)

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Jan. 15, 1997.

Thorning Revisited