A clue about the Banting painting of Almonte?

Editor’s note: Michael Dunn has sent this follow-up to the Textile Museum’s recent request for information about a painting from the Almonte area by Dr. Frederick Banting.

Sue Evans, my partner, spotted a link between the current effort on the part of the Textile Museum to find the location of the house and outbuildings painted my Dr. Banting and a story written by my father. His father, my grandfather, was one of the three doctors in Almonte at the time (1927) and had a young patient dying of diabetes. A note to readers:Mary was my great aunt who died at the age of eight months. Here is the story:

Back from the Grave

On our side of the river, people spoke of our place as on the corner as “the doctor’s house”, and whenever they stopped at my father’s office, people looked at Jim and me and Billy and called us “the doctor’s boys”. But Hannah lived with us and she was more particular. Jim was ‘Jimmy Squealer’, and I, ‘Johnny Old Grouch’, and Billy, well, Billy was different. Mostly Hannah just called him “The Little Man”. It was only because Billy was different that we learned what had happened to Mary.

One night, Hannah was taking our prayers before bedtime. We had knelt down to start the recitation: “God bless Mom and Dad and Jim and John and Billy and Mary,” when Billy interrupted to ask, “Where’s Mary, Hannah?”

“Oh, the poor darlin’. She lasted only eight months. A thing called erysipelas,” Hannah explained. The three of us boys looked up in astonishment.“

Your mother’s still broken-hearted about her wee girl. Even your father was powerless, and him a doctor that knows about diseases. You boys never did get to know your little sister very well, I’m sure.” Three heads shook in unison.

“Just remember,” Hannah cautioned. “Not a word about Mary to your mother: it would just upset her. Now, back to the prayers.”

When I’d got to be seven and Billy was still only five, they took out the bridge across the river near our place and started in right away to build a new bridge on the same First and Second Piers as the old bridge had sat upon for years. Billy and I marvelled at the men’s teamwork, particularly when the blacksmith would poke around in the charcoal fire with his tongs and then fling a red-hot rivet sizzling up in an arc to a catcher who’d snatch the rivet out of the air with a pail. When the bridge was all finished they put a bronze plaque on our end of it with the names of all the councillors of that year, 1927.

In the spring Billy and I got a chance to go out in the car to Reuben’s place for the first time. Reuben had diabetes, and Billy and I knew that diabetes was a hopeless disease. Oh, not hopeless like raging consumption that sometimes would wipe out a whole family. Diabetes was hopeless only for the person that caught it, but it was not contagious. Just bad luck.

We didn’t know any other person named Reuben either, and wondered how bad luck could strike anyone with a name out of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. But, diabetes was like that. We wondered too if there might be other members of the family with names from the Old Testament, perhaps Jacob, Rachel, Simon, Levi, or Judah. But no, it turned out Reuben was the only son of his parents, and he had diabetes.

Reuben’s place had cows and pigs and horses and chickens. But best of all it had a duck pond, and fourteen ducks that steamed back and forth on the water, stately as battleships, and just out of reach.

When Dad came out of the house at last, a man in overalls and a woman wiping her hands on an apron came with him to the steps of the verandah.

“How do you find Reuben today, doctor?” the man asked.

“Not much change. A little weaker, perhaps, that’s all.”

Reuben’s father nodded his head up and down in an understanding way, as if the physician’s observations confirmed what he had seen himself in his son.

“And there’s no hope, doctor?” Reuben’s mother asked.

“None at all, so far as we know now. It’s best to be reconciled to that, although there’s no immediate danger.”   Reuben’s mother wrung here hands behind her apron.

“How long…..” Reuben’s father began, and then stopped.

“Perhaps four to six weeks, two months at most.”  Silence fell behind around the verandah steps. “He’ll feel tired and lose weight,” Dad explained. “Near the end his pulse will become shallow. He’ll be drowsy and he’ll want to sleep most of the time.” Reuben’s parents nodded, mute as the ox and the cow in the byre in the Christmas crib scene. “Near the end he’ll drift into coma. That will last a week or ten days, and he’ll just drift away.”

Billy and I watched as a blue hornet buzzed angrily at the screen door trying to find a break in the screening so that it could get inside.

“Will he suffer much, doctor?” Reuben’s mother asked.

“Not at all. Diabetes is a wasting disease. Its victims just wither and waste. But they don’t suffer: they’re no pain.”

“That’s some consolation,” Reuben’s father commented.

“We can thank Providence for that,” his mother added. The conversation drifted away from Reuben to Billy and me.

“These your boys, doctor?” the farmer asked.

“Yes, John and Billy. Billy’s the youngest of the three boys.”“

“They’re different, aren’t they?”

“Billy’s different. Fair-haired and blue-eyed. Jim and John are brown-haired and brown-eyed. And then, Billy asks questions.”  Billy laughed at that.

A month went by until one evening the discussion around the supper table was all about diabetes.

“How do you find Reuben today?”

“He’s in coma. His condition is very weak. The end can’t be far off. A week, perhaps, at the most.”

But Reuben clung to the thread of life.

Before supper the next day, a strange meeting took place in the inside office. All three doctors of the town met there to put their heads together. Billy and I heard clipped words drifting out from under the velour curtain at the entry to Dad’s inside office, and then “Reuben”. The conversation from the other side of the curtain had an urgent tone, and Billy and I stopped outside to listen.

“What do we know about this thing called insulin?”

“Only what we’ve read about the work in Toronto.”

“Are there side effects to insulin?”

“We have no experience at first hand.”

“Yet it’s a matter of days, perhaps hours, for Reuben?”

“Yes, at most.”

“Then we have nothing to lose by trying insulin?”

“Do the parents agree?”


“Are we agreed then?”


“I agree.”

“Then there is no time to lose.”

With those words Dad picked up the telephone and Billy and I crawled closer to listen as he asked for long distance.

“Operator, hello, hello, I want to get the Connaught Laboratories in Toronto. Queen’s Park, in Toronto. Yes, I’ll wait. It’s urgent.”

“It may be closed at this time,” one of the doctors said. “Still, being a research place, it’s possible someone is there after five.”

“It’s ringing,” Dad announced.“

“Hello, hello… Yes, all right, I’ll wait.”

“The janitor,” Dad explained. “He’s gone to see if the doctor might still be there.”

Minutes passed. Utter quiet captured the inside office. Then someone answered from the other end of the line. Out came the diagnosis in stabbing notes: “Yes, yes, three doctors. Yes, all agree. Patient is a young man, twenty-six years of age. No, a farmer’s son. Condition worsened three months ago. All agree, diabetes. Symptoms? Eyes glazed, drowsiness, albumen in urine, loss of weight. Now in coma. Condition today? In extremis. Death imminent, a few days at most.”

Questions over, quiet came down again as the notes of diagnosis were examined. Then the conversation swung to practical necessities, and the need to get insulin to Reuben in time.

“If you could take it to the CPR Express and put it on the midnight train for Ottawa. It will arrive here on the Chalk River local at ten in the morning. We will administer it immediately.”

Two days later, Dad returned for supper, full of wonder and disbelief. No need for the catechetical method that evening.

“The strangest thing,” he began. “We administered insulin at ten-thirty and waited. About four o’clock Reuben stirred in his sleep, opened his eyes for a moment, and then went back to sleep. We took a chance and administered more insulin. At eight o’clock he opened his eyes and smiled wanly as he recognized his father and mother standing at the foot of the bed. He even tried to sit up, but was too weak for it.”

“Reuben,” his mother said, “Is there anything I can get for you?”

“My mouth seems awfully dry,” he replied. “Could I have a cup of tea?”“

Of course we agreed, and his mother flew downstairs scarcely believing her ears or eyes.

Hannah and Mother and Jim and Billy and I all listened in amazement.

“It’s like a miracle,” Mother said.

“The working of Providence, that’s for certain,” said Hannah.

“Insulin is a remarkable discovery,” Dad declared.

A month later when Billy and I were getting ready to start back to school, we got a chance to go out to Reuben’s place one more time. The ducks still kept their distance, but when we heard the click of the screen door of the verandah we ran back to be ready for the return trip. Dad and Reuben’s father and mother stood there on the step, but a young man was with them also. All were smiling.

“You’ll enjoy getting out in the sun for a change, won’t you Reuben?” Dad asked.

“Oh my, yes, it is nice to get out of the house,” the young man replied.

Dad swung on Billy and me.

“You see this man?” It was not so much a question he put to us as a command. His tone carried the same urgency as he used on the telephone to the Connaught Laboratories in Toronto. Billy and I looked up and saw a young man, thin and pale under a farmer’s wide-brimmed straw hat. He wore a pair of trousers that hung loosely over his hips and which would certainly have fallen down except for a pair of Police galluses that held them up with authority.

Pointing to the young man, Dad said to Billy and me: “This man is like Lazarus; he’s just come back from the grave.”

Reuben’s head dropped, and he looked away, abashed at the attention now focused on him. Reaching out with one foot he began to trace half-moons in the dust of the farmyard with the toe of his boot.

As we drove out of the laneway in the Huppmobile, Reuben turned and waved back to Billy and me.

My father wrote stories which were a mixture of his vivid imagination but some of the incidents have basis in fact. The story of the procuring and administration of the insulin is a true story. I have a vague recollection of Dad saying Reuben lived out somewhere around Corkery.

These facts beg the question: who was Reuben? Did he live in Corkery? Assuming he lived to a ripe old age, what was his history?

There is no mention of a family name so a sleuth would probably have to research school records (if they are to be found) to track down the name Reuben, which would have been a rare name in a largely white, Anglo-Saxon, christian society.

There you have it: a local mystery.

Michael Dunn – Almonte