The Origins of Diabetes

Given that an estimated 30.3 million adults in the U.S. have diabetes, and an additional 84.1 million have prediabetes, it seems difficult to imagine a time when this illness was unknown or less prevelant.1 From commercials promoting medication to diet plans pushing weight loss, the impact of diabetes’ prevalence in our society can be felt all around in our day-to-day lives.

The First Case of Diabetes

As it turns out, diabetes has been diagnosed in humans since ancient times. This makes it difficult to determine exactly who had the first case of diabetes or who first discovered the disease. What we do have, though, are records, some of them thousands of years old, describing a disease-causing frequent urination, sweet urine and increased thirst. For this reason, the discovery of diabetes is typically attributed to the ancient Egyptians around 1500 B.C.

Each culture had their own methods of diagnosing and managing diabetes, although their efficacy had a tendency to vary wildly. Many of these methods were based on the idea that diabetes leads to high sugar levels in urine. For example, ancient Indians relied on the attraction of ants to a patient’s urine for a diagnosis.

Treatments varied, but structured diets were often encouraged, with the foods and quantities recommended varying from culture to culture. Unfortunately, before the disease was better understood, patients often died shortly after the disease’s onset and diagnosis.

Putting a Name to the Affliction

Brilliant minds from every age and country made similar observations about diabetes, and many put a name to their patients’ affliction. Their contributions have helped us make progress in treatment.

  • 600-500 B.C. – Sushruta, an Indian doctor, uses the term “madhumeha” to refer to diabetes. “Madhu” means “honey” or “sweet,” and the whole term refers to the sweetness of diabetic urine.
  • 250 B.C. – Apollonius of Memphis first coins the term “diabetes” for the disease. In Greek, “diabetes” means “siphon.” This accomplishment is sometimes attributed to Aretaeus of Cappadocia, who wrote notable early descriptions of diabetes.
  • 1675 – Thomas Willis, a British doctor, coins the name “diabetes mellitus.” “Mellitus” is a Latin word meaning “honeyed.”

Uncovering the Cause and Treatment of Diabetes

Despite the early recognition of diabetes symptoms, the workings of the disease remained a mystery for thousands of years. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Claude Bernard, a French physiologist, realized that the liver played a role in blood sugar levels.

Even later, in 1889, Joseph von Mering and Oskar Minkowski found the first hint that pancreas function was related to diabetes when they noticed that dogs died of diabetes right after having their pancreases removed. Twenty-one years later, Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer discovered insulin was produced by the pancreas and that its inability to produce insulin, or insulin resistance, is the primary cause of diabetes.

Once insulin had been connected to the pancreas and diabetes, scientists began working on a treatment plan. In 1921, Sir Frederick Grant Banting and Charles Herbert Best reversed diabetes in dogs by administering a substance from the pancreas cells of healthy dogs. They, James Collip and John Macleod later used cow pancreases to manufacture insulin for human use. Their ground-breaking medical work was recognized with a Nobel Prize. In 1922, 14-year-old Leonard Thompson became the first person to receive insulin.

Diabetes Care Services in Houston, TX

It has been a slow but fascinating progression since the first symptoms of diabetes were discovered to our current understanding of the disease in the modern world. Fortunately, in recent years, diabetes has become much easier to diagnose and manage. St. Hope Foundation provides a variety of services for patients with Type 1, Type 2 or gestational diabetes, including testing, medical prescriptions, nutritional guidance, vision exams, feet exams and more. If you need help managing diabetes or simply want more information, please call us at (832) 500-5386.