Alcohol? No thanks!

In the 1940’s my family lived in a small four room house. There was no insulation in the walls, attic, or under the floor. We had a coal burning stove in one room that heated the family room and kitchen. The two bedrooms were closed off, and not heated. It got so cold that a small amount of water would partially freeze in the bedrooms. I was diagnosed with my “sugar diabetes” at six years of age in September,1945. After getting home from the hospital, I had to adapt to a difficult morning routine involving my urine testing, and shot of animal insulin. I had to pee in cup so my daddy could mix a few drops with some Benedict’s solution, boil the mixture on our kerosene stove, and determine my urine sugar level. There were no numbers involved, just some colors of the solution. That gave us a rough idea of my urine sugar level. My insulin dosage was determined by the urine sugar result. Daddy would put some insulin in a thick glass syringe, and take it to me for my shot. I was sitting in the family room, shivering and waiting for the shot. The room was cold because the fire in the stove was not started until daddy got up around 6 AM in the morning. It stayed cold until after breakfast. Daddy handed me a wad of cotton soaked in alcohol. I wiped an area on the top of my leg with the cold alcohol, and streams of the alcohol ran down my leg. I hated the odor and the wet, cold alcohol each morning. The needle was very long, probably three quarters of an inch. I was supposed to inject into the muscle because the insulin was not fast acting, and injecting into muscle caused the insulin to act faster. I could not inject the entire length of the needle into my leg, I was too skinny for that. I might have struck bone if I did that. There was no additional urine testing or insulin injection until then next morning. I was glad about that!!

The needles and glass syringe were kept in a glass jar of alcohol, and they were boiled twice each week. Mother would be working in the kitchen, preparing breakfast, and she kept watch on the syringe and needles while they were boiling away. Occasionally the water would boil down until it was gone. The glass syringe would then break, and pieces of glass would fly all over the kitchen. I don’t think anyone was ever hurt when that happened. Fortunately we kept a spare syringe on hand for those occasions. We had our own well in the front yard, and there were lime deposits from the underground source. Sometimes the needles would clog with the lime deposits, and daddy had to insert a fine wire through the needle to unclog it. The needled were much wider than the ones we use in modern times, which made it harder, and more painful, to push the needle into my legs. If there was a popping sound while injecting, that was because there was a “burr” on the needle as it entered my leg. The lime deposits caused that. Daddy used a whet rock to remove the burrs, but he sometimes missed one. Ouch!

I put up with that morning ritual for a few years, and then I started doing it all myself. Peeing, mixing, boiling, deciding on an appropriate amount of insulin, twisting the needle onto the tip of the syringe, loading the syringe, wiping my leg with the cold alcohol, and taking my shot. I would feel the needle to see if there was a burr, and file it off if needed. If the insulin would not load into the syringe, I knew it was clogged, so I had to take a wire and unclog before loading the syringe. I was still doing all of that for many years. Then there were disposable syringes, and a tape that could be used for urine testing. Things were getting so much better!!

Now I will fast forward to the year 1963. I was dating a young lady named Anita,19 years old, on a college campus where I was teaching. We started dating that year in early November. I was invited for a visit by her parents, after Christmas in December. I met the parents and her brother, nice family! I dined with them the first evening. There was a glass of liquid by my plate. I recognized that it was a wine glass. The liquid was clear, and I detected the odor. It was the odor of alcohol. That was white wine. I was 23 years old, and I had never tasted alcohol. My parents never drank alcohol, and my sister and I were never tempted to do so. I took a tiny sip of the white wine, and as I did, the thoughts of the odor and cold feeling of the alcohol running down my leg many years ago ran through my mind. I did not like that wine. I excused myself, and went to the kitchen. I poured the wine into the sink, and poured some water into a clean glass. I drank water with the other meals while visiting my girl friend’s family.

Another fast forward to the year 1972. I was teaching at a community college near Kingston, NY. The president of the college, George, invited several faculty members and their spouses to an early evening cookout. We were all standing in the backyard, and George handed me a small glass partially filled with brown liquid. I was told it was vodka. I could smell the alcohol, and I felt nauseous as I held the glass close to my mouth. Again, I thought about the cold alcohol and foul odor from my childhood. I pretended to take small sips while talking to George. When he went to greet another guest, I poured the vodka on the ground, and asked for some water. That was only the second time I held an alcoholic beverage in my hands. I have never had another time that I was invited to drink alcohol. I have been at bars or dinners with friends who were drinking alcohol, but I always drank water, or a diet soda. My wife and I do not drink alcohol. She does not like it either. I am pleased about that.

That childhood experience with the cold room, the cold, wet alcohol running down my leg, and the painful injections will always haunt me. I think that unpleasant memory has caused me to never like the odor or taste of alcohol.

(I found these pictures online. They are near duplicates of the equipment I used.)

Alcohol? No Thanks!


Richard, I like your stories, keep writing them! I can’t imagine what it was like to be a diabetic back then.

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Well, I missed the Benedict’s solution by several years, mostly because I was in my late teens when I was diagnosed. But peeing on the yellow tape was a regular ritual for a number of years. Our house was never cold in the morning because I had loaded the furnace with coal the night before. As long as you banked the furnace at bedtime, it would be reasonably toasty in the morning.

In the early 70’s, I read an article in “Diabetes Forecast” titled “the Ames Bomb.” It was written by Richard Bernstein, not a doctor at that time. The story involved going back in a building to retrieve his blood sugar meter and seeing the building emptying out. His bag was mistaken for a bomb! I didn’t know what a blood sugar meter was at that point, but I knew I wanted one! Very soon after that, I got Richard on the phone for about 45 minutes. Several weeks later, I had my first tool, an Ames Eyetone meter It had to be plugged into the wall and weighed about five pounds. There were no calibration numbers. Richard made some standard color strips that he used to calibrate. I went with a different method that involved writing an equation for each bottle of strips. I lugged that thing around for probably five years or so before battery-operated models were available.

Back then, I assumed if I could just reasonably control my sugars for the next five or ten years, there would be a cure for diabetes. As we’ve all sadly discovered, I was a tad optimistic!


Thank you for sharing your story. You are a strong person! It was so hard back then and so much work! It makes me realize how good we have it and not to complain or feel sorry for myself with a pen injection and disposable needles.


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Wow! Thank-you for sharing this!!! It’s just incredible how much living with diabetes has changed over your life time! I couldn’t imagine having had to do all that! You must have been one strong kid!

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Oh my gosh. What an incredible intricate look into history and how your story made me feel. Yes, my 48 years have been challenging, but so much less so than burrs on needles and freezing mornings with alcohol wet and cold on your leg. I also felt like your mom and dad loved you very much, so much so that I hope even those cold mornings give you some warm memories. Thank you for sharing this.


Richard, your stories are fantastic, and I thank you for sharing them with us. My grandmother was also T1 about the same time as you, and I’ve always wondered about that “one shot in the morning” routine. How did you eat during the day to make sure you didn’t go “over” the amount of carbs you’d pre-compensated for with that morning shot? And did you just go catastrophically low if something interfered with eating on schedule (and on menu)?

I remember my grandmother (and great-grandmother for that matter) keeping bowls of hard candy around for lows. Was it a matter of realizing one felt low and then eating candy to bring you back to feeling OK?

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David, my doctors, for my first 50 years with T1D, knew very little about diabetes. My family was told that I could eat anything, and as much as I wanted , if it did not contain sugar. I ate enormous amounts. If I had lows I had sugar stirred in water. I had some terrible seizures at night. My mom was very good with giving me the sugar water then.
I know other long term T1D’s who were told to test urine before each meal, and eat appropriately. I did not know that carbs had anything to do with diabetes until 1988, but there were other people who did know, and they knew which foods had fast acting carbs. Many of the Joslin medalists in the Facebook group lived in or near Boston when diagnosed. Their doctor was Dr. Joslin. He was excellent, and his patients knew so much more than I did. I lived in southern Va., and My GP’s were no help.


Beautiful and moving story on so many levels, @Richard157, thanks! It’s perspectives like yours that have softened my rather harsh opinion of the R/N regimen I started out on. No cure, as you note, but things have steadily improved, no question about that.

But most of all I wanted to remark on how much I enjoy your skill with language and storytelling. Funny how early experiences of smell/odor/taste get deep into our mental programming. For my part I enjoy a good glass of scotch, but anything remotely resembling the smell of Cheez-its invokes my gag reflex, thanks to a case of stomach flu after eating them when I was a toddler. Ugh.


I completely agree. I first encountered @Richard157 's writing when I first joined TuDiabetes. He was telling his story in a series of chapters, and every day I checked in to see if there was a new chapter. He eventually went on to put them together in a book.

It’s so interesting how the sense of smell can trigger such strong memories and emotions. My dad was an accomplished woodworker, and if I ever encounter the smell of fresh sawdust, it brings tears to my eyes.


Well, imagine that. I’m from Buchanan Co, VA, and that is where my great-grandmother and grandmother managed their own Type 1 DM. They both went to company doctors (companies that owned the coalmines), and I’m positive they didn’t learn anything about carbs. Our staples growing up were biscuits and gravy (both with plenty of carbs), pinto beans, cornbread, and butter and honey from our cow and honeybees. We also had blackberry and strawberry preserves and stewed apples, none of which I remember any of the diabetics in my family being careful with. In retrospect, it’s amazing they survived such a carb-heavy diet :slight_smile:


I was dx’d in 1971. Had one shot per day for at least 10 years, perhaps as long as 15. We usually trusted my symptoms to tell me when I was low. My friends and their parents knew the basics. If I told an adult I felt “shaky” or “funny” they knew I needed food - juice and bread with peanut butter was the standard. Severe hypos where I lost consciousness were treated with sweet juice and/or honey. Later Mom kept glucagon in the fridge but there were only a few times that glucagon was used on me over the years. My younger brother was less stable so he had a few more glucagon shots than me.

There was no carb counting. Mom just knew that sweets were not permitted. I don’t ever remember bolus doses when I was a child. I don’t think the concept of bolus was explained to my parents until I was a teenager. Mom would notice if I was excessively thirsty and peeing lots. She would smell my breath - ketones cause the breath to smell sweet. If it seemed I was high we would use the Tes Tape. Dark green Tes Tape confirmed high BG and that meant I couldn’t eat. We waited a while and it would drop, then I could eat. Mom never liked sweets so most of the food in our house was meat and veggies and dairy and bread. Dessert was a piece of fruit. For a treat there would be ice cream.

I learned all of this along with Mom. By the age of 10 I had a pretty good idea if my BG was too high or too low just by the way I felt. The Tes Tape was used to confirm. Later we used Chemstrips. They were cut in half lengthwise to double the number of tests (as mentioned in other posts). We started using blood glucose testers in the 80’s. We grew up with minimal testing. I didn’t like doing it so it was only done when I didn’t feel right. My brother tested more because his diabetes was less stable.

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I think that persisted through the R/N era as well, which for me was 1983 - 2003. People who still use R speak of bolusing with it, but back in its heyday that wasn’t really a thing. We had those exchange diets, but there wasn’t any question of carb-counting and so on, you just aimed for the insulin to come on when your next meal was going to be, several hours hence, and then tried to fit when and what you ate within that window. An improvement on one-shot-per-day, but only in a pretty crude way. “Correction,” like bolusing, wasn’t really a thing either. Especially with those Diastix you didn’t get anything like a precise enough number to correct for, and R didn’t give you that kind of precision anyway. I did have to take a supplementary dose now and then (a visit to McDonald’s a week or so into my diagnosis sticks in my memory–panicked call to my doctor, French fries! who knew!–and there was a memorable experiment with a milkshake at a roadside ice cream parlor) but it was a total crapshoot, best avoided if at all possible.

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What is the name of the book and is it on a list somewhere to buy?

you can get it on Amazon

and if you use Amazon Smile, choose DHF as your charity and Amazon will give us a small donation

My book is the story of my first 64 years after diagnosis.

@David49, My mom prepared pies, cookies, and a cake on my birthday, sweetened with saccharin. All of them were delicious. I was very good about avoiding sugar.
I participated in the Joslin Medalist Study in 2009. There were more than 1000 participants in that study. All of them had been T1D’s for 50 or more years. More than half of the participants were still producing small amounts of insulin. Dr King, head of the study, announced that many of the long term T1D’s have a special kind of protection that helps our eyes, kidneys and nervous system. Maybe you have that protection, too.


I decided to not make drinking something I do very early on, but it wasn’t based on a sensory experience. I just felt there were so many downsides to drinking that it just didn’t interest me. I made this decision very young. I haven’t completely abstained, but the decision NOT to make it a regular thing kept it from ever having the power to BECOME a problem addiction-wise.

My standard line is, “I’ve devoted myself to a life of wine, women and song. But I haven’t gotten around to the wine or the women yet!”

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I thought I was reading a chapter in my own autobiography!!! I was diagnosed in May 1957, 60 years next month. My morning injection was the same, but I am a Florida native so our small house was not so cold. One shot a day was the norm for quite sometime. I do recall a regular bolus in the 60’s based on my urine test at supper. It took years for diabetes to advance and then it progressed quickly once glucometers were more affordable in the early '80’s (as I remember it).


This is a well-written and fascinating narrative. Benedict’s test was still a morning ritual when I was diagnosed in 1968. Had to be boiled on the stove. It was thought to be more accurate than the tests we were instructed to use later in the day. They were also in glass tubes, but with a reagent tablet - no boiling.
Someone asked about dosages and meals. Meals consisted of fixed numbers of units of carbohydrate, fat and protein to be eaten at the same time every day. Food was measured on a scale. Dinner had to be eaten at 5:30, no later because long-acting insulin peaked at that time.
Lows were detected by feeling shaky, sweaty, etc. I think that most people with Type 1 probably ran higher average blood sugars then than now, because it was the only way to be safe from dangerous lows. Children like me could attend school, equipped with sugar cubes for lows. No daytime testing or interaction with a school nurse. There was no school nurse.
We had smaller needles by 1968 but the syringes were glass and still suspended in glass containers of alcohol.
Thanks for sharing your memories!