The History of Diabetes and Its Research Through the Ages

Diabetes HistoryDiabetes has been with us since the dawn of time, though it was only in the late 20th century that it started to become a major threat to the health of millions.  The Ancient Egyptians knew it, as did the ancient Chinese and Japanese.  The ancient Indians diagnosed it by offering the patient’s urine to ants to see whether these sweet-loving insects were attracted to it.  Indian physician Sushruta from 800 BCE associated the disease with being overweight and a sedentary lifestyle in his book the Sushruta Samhita.

Aretaus of Cappadocia, in the first century CE, described the excessive production of urine and gave the condition the name “diabetes.”  The Persian scholar Avicenna wrote of diabetic gangrene and treated diabetes using medicinal herbs such as fenugreek and zedoary, a relative of turmeric, which is still used to treat diabetes today.  Strangely, the greatest of ancient physicians, Hippocrates, does not mention it at all.

Thomas Willis of London in the 18th century added the suffix mellitus to describe the sweetness of the urine, but it was Matthew Dobson in that same century that evaporated down the urine of a diabetic patient to reveal the sugar and pronounced that this was a systemic disease.  Previously it had been thought to be a kidney disorder because of the excessive thirst and urine production, which are two of the most common symptoms.  A few years later, Thomas Cawley was the first to suggest that the pancreas was involved in diabetes after observing tissue damage in the pancreas of a deceased patient.

However, it was not until around the turn of the 20th century that scientists began to understand the condition through experimental work.  Joseph von Mering and Oskar Minkwski found in 1889 that dogs developed diabetes and died when their pancreases were surgically removed.  This led Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer to suspect in 1910 that the pancreas supplied a chemical that was somehow missing in diabetics.  He called this insulin.

In 1921 this was confirmed by Sir Frederick Grant Banting and Charles Best, who repeated von Mering and Minowski’s experiments on dogs and demonstrated that the dogs could be kept alive without their pancreases through injections of insulin.  This led to the development of the first insulin treatments for diabetics, based on extracts from cows, and won Banting and his Toronto laboratory director Professor John MacLeod a Nobel Prize.  Banting and Best made the patent available free and, in recognition of their services to diabetics, World Diabetics Day is celebrated on Banting’s birthday, November 14th.  In 1936 Sir Harold Himsworth published his research, making clear for the first time the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Today, although it remains a serious condition, diabetes is no longer an automatic death sentence and can be controlled with insulin and through diet.  Diabetics are now given synthetic human insulin, rather than that derived from cattle, and many lead long and relatively healthy lives.

Did you know that many celebrities and historical figures also suffered from diabetes?  These include the entertainment stars Halle Berry, Elvis, Jack Benny, James Cagney, and Mary Tyler Moore, politicians Anwar Sadat and Mikhail Gorbachev, writers H G Wells and Ernest Hemingway, sports figures Billie Jean King, Sugar Ray Robinson and Arthur Ashe, and scientist Thomas Edison.

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