written by: Jason C. Chavis
• edited by: Lamar Stonecypher
• updated: 8/2/2011
When was diabetes first discovered? The process of discovering diabetes and diabetes treatment took thousands of years to come to modern fruition. A number of different individuals have a place in the history of diabetes from ancient times to as recent as the late 20th century.
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In order to understand who discovered diabetes, it's important to sympathize with the researchers of diseases in ancient times and the perspective they placed on detailing treatments. Many physicians of the ancient era fail to mention diseases that led to death in their writings. Without a good prognosis for their patients, medical pioneers such as Hippocrates did not record any research.
One widely-recognized factor in diabetes, however, was the ability to identify it as a condition. The Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Indians and Persians successfully found ways to identify people with the disease by analyzing their urine. Since the urine contained an excess amount of sugar, it maintained a sweet taste. This was most easily identified by observing the tendency of ants to consume the sample urine.
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Identification of Diabetes Treatments
Some of the first readily identifiable research came during the sixth century BC. According to Girish Dwivedi and Shridhar Dwivedi, researchers from Northwick Park Hospitals in Middlesex, United Kingdom, the famous Indian surgeon Sushruta may have been the first to identify some causes of the disease, namely its link to obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. He recommended treating diabetic patients with a regime of exercise.
In Persia, a medieval document known as the The Canon of Medicine further details early treatment methods. The famed philosopher Avicenna identified a combination of certain herbs that were found to decrease the excretion of sugar. A mixture of fenugreek, lupine, and zedoary seeds is still used by some traditional healers to treat diabetes.
Left: Universal symbol for diabetes. (Supplied by Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain; http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/43/Blue_circle_for_diabetes.svg)
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Modern Understanding of the Disease
During the late second millennium, major advances in the understanding of diabetes helped change the perspective of the disease and its treatment. Johann Peter Frank found in the early 19th century that two types of diabetes existed, later identified as type one and type two by Sir Harry Himsworth in 1936.
One of the largest breakthroughs in understanding diabetes came in 1889 when German physician Joseph von Mering removed the pancreas organ from a number of dogs. These dogs were found to exhibit all the symptoms of diabetes. Using this evidence in 1910, Sir Edward Sharpey-Schafer found that when insulin produced in the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas was deficient, the disease was present in patients. Once insulin's impact on the disease could be identified, modern treatment methods of supplying patients with bovine insulin was developed by Sir Frederick Banting at the University of Toronto in 1922. However, it wasn't until 1980 that a company named Genetech was able to isolate genetically-engineered bacteria for the production of human insulin, effectively changing treatment methods and adding the firm's name to the long list of those involved in diabetes breakthroughs.