The History of Diabetes from the Ancient Greeks to Present Day Research

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Early Breakthroughs

Then as now, fad diets sprang up as a means to treat diabetes. In 1674, Thomas Willis gave the condition its present name of “diabetes mellitus,” referring to the sugar found in the urine of diabetics. While the symptoms were recognized and diagnosed, it wasn’t until 1889 that a direct connection was found between diabetes and the pancreas.

Early researchers, Joseph von Mering and Oskar Minkowski, linked diabetes-like symptoms to the removal of the pancreas in dogs, an extreme measure to be sure. However, the conclusion illustrated the fact that the malfunction of the pancreas was the underlying root of the disease, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. This was an important breakthrough in the history of diabetes. The next step was discovering the mechanism behind the disease.

Isolation of Insulin

Scientists concluded that the pancreas was essential for life. Research then focused on what specific role the pancreas played. Dr. Frederick Banting and his assistant Charles Best took up the challenge. Again, dogs provided science with the means to identify an extract derived from the pancreatic ducts of dogs. Banting’s research isolated what he termed “isletin.”

It didn’t take researchers long to figure out that the extract that Banting identified acted as a temporary treatment for diabetes. In 1922, the first human received refined insulin, greatly improving his condition. Research continued with this advance into other sources of insulin from pigs and cattle. Later, scientists developed a human-synthesized insulin.

Improved Patient Care

Knowledge of a cause and treatment were only part of the path to diabetes management. Further advances paved the way for improved treatment and pain reduction associated with insulin treatment. According to Diabetes Health, the introduction of the single use syringe in 1961 represented a significant advance.

No longer would a patient have to endure injections with needles that had to be sharpened and sterilized with each use. With the invention of the portable glucose meter in 1969 and the insulin pump in the late 1970s, patients could better manage their condition. Further research in medical treatments offered other ways for patients to manage their blood sugar levels.

Risk Factors

Despite the advances in medicine and technology, diabetes remains a serious health issue for Americans. Over 70,000 people die each year from diabetes and its complications, estimates the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. An emerging branch of research has explored ways to prevent diabetes in the first place.

Scientists recognized a genetic component in type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Since type 2 diabetes occurred later in life, researchers looked at lifestyle factors which can influence one’s risk. According to Mayo Clinic, several controllable conditions increase your risk for diabetes including inactivity and weight. Doctors call these collections of risk factors metabolic syndrome.

The history of diabetes diagnosis and treatment has come a long albeit painful way from its identification by the ancient Greeks. Research will continue to illuminate new ways for diabetics to manage their condition and to help you lower your risk.


Centers of Disease Control and Prevention: Leading Causes of

Mayo Clinic: Diabetes: Risk Factors – www.

National Center for Biotechnology Information: Introduction to