History of Diabetes

Medically reviewed by Suzanne Falck, MD on October 25, 2017Written by Eloise Porter

The beginnings

Diabetes has been affecting lives for thousands of years. An ailment suspected to be diabetes was recognized by the Egyptians in manuscripts dating to approximately 1550 B.C.

According to one study, ancient Indians (circa 400–500 A.D.) were well aware of the condition, and had even identified two types of the condition. They tested for diabetes — which they called “honey urine” — by determining if ants were attracted to a person’s urine.

The term “diabetes”

In Greek, “diabetes” means “to go through.” Greek physician Apollonius of Memphis is credited with naming the disorder for its top symptom: the excessive passing of urine through the body’s system.

Historical documents show that Greek, Indian, Arab, Egyptian, and Chinese doctors were aware of the condition, but none could determine its cause. In earlier times, a diagnosis of diabetes was likely a death sentence.

Insulin deficiency

In the early years of the 20th century, medical professionals took the first steps toward discovering a cause and treatment mode for diabetes. In 1926, Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer announced that the pancreas of a patient with diabetes was unable to produce what he termed “insulin,” a chemical the body uses to break down sugar. Thus, excess sugar ended up in the urine.

Physicians promoted a fasting diet combined with regular exercise to combat the disorder.

Diabetes in dogs

Despite attempts to manage the disorder through diet and exercise, people with diabetes inevitably died prematurely. In 1921, scientists experimenting with dogs had a breakthrough in reversing the effects of diabetes. Two Canadian researchers, Frederick Grant Banting and Charles Herbert Best, successfully extracted insulin from healthy dogs. They then injected it into dogs that had diabetes to improve their condition.

The discovery of diabetes types

Although insulin injection began to successfully combat diabetes, some cases were unresponsive to this form of treatment. Harold Himsworth finally distinguished between the two types of diabetes in 1936, according to writings published by his son Richard in Diabetic Medicine. He defined them as “insulin-sensitive” and “insulin-insensitive.” Today, these classifications are commonly referred to as “type 1” and “type 2” diabetes.

Medication

In the 1960s, diabetes management improved significantly. The development of urine strips made detecting sugar easier and simplified the process of managing blood sugar levels, the Mayo Clinic reports. Introduction of the single-use syringe allowed for faster and easier insulin therapy options.

Glucose meters

Large portable glucose meters were created in 1969, and have since been reduced to the size of a hand-held calculator. Portable glucose meters are a key tool in managing diabetes today. They allow you to monitor your blood sugar levels at home, at work, and anywhere else. Fairly simple to use, they produce accurate results. Learn more about glucose meters.

Insulin pumps

In 1970, insulin pumps were developed to mimic the body’s normal release of insulin. Today, these pumps are light and portable, allowing for comfortable wearing on a daily basis.

Type 2 diabetes in children

As recently as 20 years ago, type 2 diabetes wasn’t observed to occur in children. In fact, it was once referred to as “adult-onset diabetes” and type 1 diabetes was called “juvenile diabetes.” However, more cases began appearing in children and teenagers in the past two decades due to poor eating habits, lack of exercise, and excess weight. As such, adult-onset diabetes was renamed “type 2 diabetes.”

Diabetes statistics

Despite the strides we’ve made since diabetes was first described in ancient times, it still remains a major cause of death and health complications throughout the world. As of 2015, diabetes was the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Diabetes today

Now that blood sugar can be tested at home, diabetes is more manageable than ever. Insulin remains the primary treatment for type 1 diabetes. Those with type 2 diabetes can reduce their risk of health complications through regular exercise, healthy diets, and other medications.

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