Diabetes Throughout History

This was originally posted to my blog, Diabetes Odyssey.

Many people are under this assumption that diabetes is a fairly new development, perhaps brought on by poor diets and sedentary lifestyles. These people couldn’t be more wrong.

Diabetes has been around since the beginning of time. ALL types of diabetes have been around since the dawn of time.

In the 6th century there lived an Indian healer by the name of Sushruta. This healer used the word Madhumeha (sweet urine) for diabetes. The Indians tested a person for diabetes by checking to see if ants were drawn to their urine. If the ants came to the urine then that meant there was a lot of sugar (glucose) in it and that the person was diabetic.

The word diabetes was first used around this same time. The word is derived from the Greek word for “siphon” or “to pass through” because one of the major symptoms of diabetes is frequent urination and the very sweet taste of the urine as the body spills excess glucose through the urine.

In these ancient times it was generally believed that this disease caused the body to literally melt into sugar water.

Diabetes was a death sentence, a very painful and agonizing sickness that absolutely lead to death. There was absolutely nothing that could be done to stop the death sentence of this disease. There was very little study, advancement in knowledge, or useful treatments for diabetes until the early 1900’s.

Then came along every diabetic’s hero; a Canadian by the name of Dr. Frederick Banting. This was in 1921, and this was the man who discovered insulin and first used it to save a young diabetic boy from dying. With Dr. Banting and his team’s discovery, diabetes was no longer an absolute death sentence. Insulin quickly became mass produced.

From this point forward studies and advancements in technology and medical understanding and nutrition have greatly improved care, quality of life, and life expectancy in diabetics.

In the early 1950’s glucose testing became available to diabetics to do at home. The first glucose home testing was done using tablets dissolved in urine. Around this time diabetes is much better understood and type 1 (insulin dependent) and type 2 (non-insulin dependent) are designated. Pills to help treat type 2 diabetes are put on the market.

In the early 1960’s glucagon is put on the market to treat severe hypoglycemia (very low blood sugar). Around this time home blood glucose testing becomes a thing. This was done using color coded strips and a blood sample.

In 1970 the first glucose meter is put on the market. A few years later came the first insulin pump. And not long after that came standard A1c testing.

In 1980 a new way of using insulin therapy improve blood sugar control. Basal-bolus therapy becomes a standard practice.

Around 1990 it was confirmed that type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease.

From here on out there have been many wonderful improvements and discoveries regarding diabetes, control, and treatments.

But there still is no cure.


Was basal-bolus really standard in the 1980s? I was diagnosed in the early 1990s and used two shots a day for years. So did everyone else I know who was diagnosed before about the 2000s (all the people I know in person who were diagnosed in the 1990s being kids or teenagers at the time, though).

While I don’t get excited about ever seeing a cure in my lifetime, I do get excited about things like teh artificial pancreas. That isn’t a true cure, but it could go a long way towards easing the daily grind of diabetes, and it’s something I’m very likely to experience in my lifetime.

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I was diagnosed in 1984. Between then and 1987 I moved from a once per day NPH dose to 2x/day. I then aded Regular insulin for each meal, also known as a basal-bolus regimen. I believe Dr. Bernstein is credited with first promoting the basal-bolus system.

I adopted an insulin pump in 1987. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area with access to more progressive health practices. So I don’t know if basal-bolus insulin was common or standard throughout the world but it was definitely known to the endo that I saw at the time. He practiced near the University of California San Francisco, a major medical institution that includes diabetes as one of its specialties.

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I was diagnosed in 1987 and used three shots a day until just three years ago. I really think it all depends on your doctor, insurance, and personal knowledge/comfort, etc. I knew different therapies existed but I never bothered to change or try new things until I actually had to.

Wonderful blog post, @Tamra11…Thank you…Judith

Great post!

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Great history lesson. I have also heard that in ancient times, some diabetics were forced to drink their urine. The theory behind that was the diabetic seemed lethargic from high blood sugar, so the physicians thought that the body had no energy because all of the sugar was leaving the body through urine. The physicians wanted to “replace” the lost sugar by having the diabetic drink the sugar-rich urine so he/she could get some energy back. I am sure that that particular treatment did not work out too well!

Having lived with diabetes since 1966, I have seen quite a change in the equipment used through the decades also. When I was diagnosed, I was given two glass syringes and three or four needles. I was only 12 at the time, so my loving mother took charge of boiling the syringes and needles every few days to keep them “sterile.” Let me tell you, after a couple of months of using those same needles, the tips felt like they were square! Then disposable needles were introduced for public consumption. My dad protested that they cost too much. (He grew up during the depression, so using something once and throwing it out was a horrible waste in his eyes.) However, my mother and I won that argument, and I bought and threw out thousands of syringes and needles through the years.

The advent of the pen helped reduce the amount of waste since only the needles and insulin cartridges were disposed of, and the insulin pump with its longer use of materials also has further reduced the waste.

Back in 1966, my mother was told to not give me anything with sugar in it. She was great about doing so, but she believed in three square meals a day which included pasta or potatoes at least once a day. No one thought about counting carbs then, so keeping my blood sugar in check in those days was a chore.

And long before the blood glucose testing, we only had urine tests with the tablet (as mentioned above) or peeing on a test strip. That was not too accurate since eating a heavy carb-rich meal would have dumped glucose into the urine. Hours later, after perhaps swimming or riding my bike, I would feel low but the urine test showed that my blood sugar was high. Now that I write about this, I really wonder how I survived my teenage years.

Needless to say, the advancement of the pump and home glucose testing, along with better understanding of how diet / exercise/ and personal physiology all work together has made the future much brighter for diabetics. Artificial pancreases and pancreatic transplants also hold much hope, and I have not even touched on what may happen through stem cell research.

Will I see a cure in my lifetime? At age 61, I can say, “I doubt it.” But who knows? We only lose when we stop trying.

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When I was first diagnosed I read a great book that really plays off of Michael Bliss’s book. I read Breakthrough: The Elizabeth Hughes story. Michael Bliss wrote the Discovery of Insulin.

Awesome post! :smile:


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i like the Michael Bliss book i like to read it a lot.

Funny, I find myself complaining… Yet I have so much to be grateful for.