Early History of Diabetes

The earliest known record of diabetes as a disease dates back to 1552 BC, where it is written on a 3rd Dynasty Egyptian papyrus mention of frequent urination as a symptom by the physician Hesy-Ra. In 1550BC Hindu writings had noted that ants were attracted to the urine of people who suffered a mysterious illness.

 

Sugar in the urine and the common occurrence in those who were obese were first described in 500 BC. It wasn’t until 250 BC that the disease was given its name. Apollonius of Memphis coined the term diabetes, which means to go through or siphon, and was given to the disease that drained the sufferers of more fluid than they could consume.  Interestingly, in the 1st century AD, the Greeks described the disease quite graphically, as a ‘melting down of flesh and limbs into urine’. By 164 AD, Galen of Pergamum, a Greek physician, had diagnosed diabetes as being a kidney disease.

 

Up until the 11th century, because people with diabetes were thought to have sweet tasting urine, the diagnosis of diabetes was usually made by so-called ‘water tasters’. These water tasters would drink the urine of those suspected of having the disease. This is also when ‘mellitus’ was added to the term diabetes, which is the Latin word for honey.

 

Lack of knowledge and understanding of diabetes and the unknown treatment meant that for thousands of years, children with diabetes often died within days of the onset of the disease, and older people with diabetes suffered from devastating complications. Some remedies that were used to try and treat the disease involved the use of herbs and bloodletting.

 

In 1776, a gentleman by the name of Dobson discovered that when you allow urine from diabetics to evaporate, it resulted in a brown sugar-like substance, not only just in appearance, but also in taste. It was during this time that he discovered the disease was sometimes fatal within a matter of weeks, whereas for others it became a chronic condition. Therefore, this is the first time a distinction between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes had been made.

 

The first significant use of dietary treatment was undertaken in 1797. Patients were treated with a high fat and high protein diet as a result of discovering that after eating starchy food the sugar in the urine increased. It wasn’t until the early 1800’s that researchers developed chemical tests to measure sugar in the urine.

 

In 1848 a researcher named Bernard discovered that glycogen was formed by the liver, and theorized that this was the same sugar found in diabetic urine. This was the first time a link had been made between glycogen metabolism and diabetes.

 

A German medical student named Langerhans announced in 1869 that he had discovered the pancreas contained two types of cells. Whilst it was known that one type of cell secreted pancreatic fluids, it was not known at the time what the function of the second cells was. Eventually these cells would be identified as the ‘islets of Langerhans’, and their function was to help produce insulin.

 

Of note, in the late 1850’s a French physician advised diabetes patients to eat huge amounts of sugar as a treatment! Obviously he was way off the mark with that idea!

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