Part 2: Banting’s fame brought no joy to Elora family

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.

(Note: This is the conclusion of the story of Dr. William Robertson of Elora and his daughter, Marion Banting.)

After the marriage in June 1924, Marion left her position at the Toronto General Hospital. There was plenty to do at home; Frederick Banting was the most famous Canadian of the 1920s, and there were constant social engagements to plan.

Marion soon realized Fred Banting was not prepared to fill his public role. He could act in a gentlemanly manner when the mood struck him, but he preferred the rustic and sometimes crude habits he had known as a farm boy. 

He would return home to a house full of guests clad in his work clothes, reeking of lab chemicals. Increasingly, Marion could see that Fred’s tastes were simple and common. He expected Marion to act as a traditional housewife, a role she was unwilling to play.

Fred Banting had other problems. A public subscription had established the Banting Foundation, to fund new medical breakthroughs by Banting and other researchers. His research, though, was not going well. When results did not come, Fred worked even harder to justify his salary. As well, his feud with J.J.R. MacLeod, the supervisor of the insulin project, grew increasingly bitter.

Fred and Marion Banting regularly visited Marion’s parents, Florence and William Robertson, in Elora. With each visit, Dr. Robertson’s dislike of Fred Banting increased. He thought Banting smoked too much, swore too much and drank too much. Fred would often spend the afternoon in the Robertson’s backyard, chain smoking with a glass of rye in his hand, and stewing over his research problems.

Dr. Robertson, old-fashioned and proper, believed that a man in Banting’s position had strong obligations of social and moral leadership. He also concluded that Banting had turned out to be a poor husband.

By 1927 the Bantings were leading separate lives. They slept in separate bedrooms, and Fred spent his time at home in his study, reading or painting. He had fallen in with members of the Arts and Letters Club, and occasionally went on painting trips with A.Y. Jackson. Marion, meanwhile, occupied herself with the Girl Guide movement. They still appeared together in public, but the couple’s friends suspected they were only keeping up appearances.

Marion’s trips to Elora often stretched to a week, while Fred stayed in Toronto. Despite the problems, the Bantings still tried to resurrect the failing marriage. Fred’s desire for a traditional family life were boosted with the birth of a son in April 1929. He was named William Robertson Banting, after Marion’s father.

The marriage was doomed. In 1930 Fred Banting began to see a lot of Blodwen Davies, a writer. By his own admission he had enjoyed brief affairs earlier in the marriage, but this was more serious. In 1931 Marion began keeping company with Donat LeBourdais, educational director of the Canadian Committee on Mental Hygiene.

Frederick had told Marion that they should both lead independent lives inside their marriage, but LeBourdais’ presence was too much for him. On Feb. 8, 1932, accompanied by two private detectives, Banting burst into LeBourdais’ apartment when Marion was there. He grabbed LeBourdais by the throat, and told Marion that he wanted a divorce.

Late that night Marion went to see Sir William Mulock, Chancellor of the University and the Chief Justice of Ontario. Mulock thought that an uncontested divorce could be obtained quickly, and that he would be able to keep the matter out of the newspapers.

Banting vs. Banting went to court on April 25. A divorce was granted, to be final after six months, on the grounds of Marion’s adultery. Despite his powerful influence, Mulock was unable to keep the story out of the papers. The Evening Telegram carried a front-page account of the court proceedings.

In Elora, Dr. Robertson was fuming. He had urged Marion to contest the divorce, and now her adultery was all over the papers, permanently blackening her reputation. Dr. Robertson hired his own detectives to investigate Banting’s past activities, and to monitor his current ones. Robertson was determined to get the goods on Frederick Banting. A week before the divorce became final, Dr. Robertson and LeBourdais filed appeals.

The Toronto Star seized on the new developments, publishing many court documents verbatim. Other papers, in Toronto and across Canada, quickly picked up the story. Banting had always been rude and uncooperative with the press. Editors and reporters thought it was payback time.

Dr. Robertson’s affidavit was particularly damaging. He alleged that Banting had “cruelly and frequently assaulted” Marion, and that the allegations of her adultery were a fiction so that he could get rid of her. In addition to charges of adultery by both parties, the papers were now filled with stories of spousal abuse.

In the end, there was no appeal trial. A settlement was reached out of court. The details are shrouded in mystery. Dr. Robertson had spent a lot of money on private detectives and lawyers, and was mortified that all the dirty laundry was being aired very publicly. He may have concluded that the best course was to let the matter die quietly. Marion always insisted that Sir William Mulock personally intervened and arranged everything.

Following the divorce, Fred Banting did not marry Blodwen Davies. His tarnished reputation improved when he was granted a knighthood in 1934. He remained single until 1938, when he wed Henrietta Ball, a researcher at the University of Toronto.

Marion never remarried. Rather than return to hospital work, she joined Simpson’s downtown store as manager of the customer service department. In the late 1930s she moved to Oakville.

In Elora, Dr. Robertson, shaken by all the publicity that offended his notions of propriety, continued his medical practice. His wife Florence had died in 1930, just before the Banting divorce. The doctor’s sister Jessie Robertson came to Elora to look after his house. He enjoyed lawn bowling up to the summer of 1939, playing on teams with Fred Fischer, Jack Burt and Dr. McGregor, the dentist.

William Robertson’s health declined badly in 1940. Lonely and despondent, he refused to undergo an operation that might have saved his life. The doctor died in 1941 at the age of 76. His death occurred only a few weeks after Frederick Banting was killed in a plane crash. At his funeral, Rev. E.A. Thompson emphasized Robertson’s strength of personality and devotion to duty.

Marion Banting sold the doctor’s household possessions in an auction sale, but was unable to dispose of the house until the summer of 1942. The Catholic Church bought it for $3,000, for use as a convent for the local teachers. There were no other major assets, other than a drawer full of uncollected accounts. Robertson had spent all his savings in his proceedings against Frederick Banting.

With several lifelong friends in Elora, Marion retained ties to the village. Her own health failed in 1944, and she died on Sept. 5 of that year at the age of 46. There were dozens of floral tributes at the funeral, which was conducted by Rev. E.A. Thompson, the former minister of Knox Church, Elora. She was buried in Oakville.

Her son, 15-year-old Bill, was a student at Appleby College. He became a documentary filmmaker and retired to British Columbia.

In June 1948, Jane Wardley wrote a letter to the Elora Express, noting that there was no tombstone for Dr. Robertson and suggesting that one be provided by a public subscription. Within days, a committee composed of Art Badley, Charlie Burt, Russ Duncan, Frank Fischer, John Jeffries and Dick Mills was raising money.

The committee hoped to raise $300. When the campaign ended, they had $448 in the till. It was enough to pay for perpetual care and a substantial monument. At the dedication ceremony on Sept. 12, 200 people turned out to pay tribute to Elora’s long-serving doctor.

Sir Frederick Banting’s discovery of insulin saved countless lives, but his renown brought little happiness to either himself or to those who became close to him, notably the Robertsons of Elora.

In 1994, Bill Banting placed an In Memoriam notice in the Toronto Sun, on the 50th anniversary of Marion’s death. 

It reads in part: “Loving, cheerful, brave, a beacon to all who knew her. Sorely wronged and slandered by a society protecting the reputation and great name of its hero. She bore it with understanding and grace and never complained.”

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Jan. 29, 1997.

Thorning Revisited