History Of Diabetes – My Big Fat Greek Wedding?

history-of-diabetesThe history of diabetes is a long one. The disease has been referenced for centuries in books, but it was not until recently that an effective treatment was developed. Here is a fascinating timeline of diabetes history.

Test your knowledge to see how much you knew about this disease. I had no idea it has been around for hundreds of years before Christ!

The Early Years

Ancient Times. Early Hindu texts refer to the attraction of flies and ants to urine. This is presumed to be a reference to the tendency of a diabetic’s urine to be sweet (caused by excess unabsorbed glucose passing through the urine).

400 B.C. Susharta (an Indian physician) notes the sweet taste of urine in diagnosing the illness (reports do not state how he knew this!?).

200 B.C. The Greek’s make the first known reference to the name diabetes. Diabetes is from the greek word that means “to syphon,” a reference to a diabetic’s proclivity to urinate excessively, essentially “to siphon” fluid from the body. Anyone who has seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding may remember how the father of the bride in the movie claimed that every word in the English language originated from Greek. At least in this case, he would be correct!

the middle ages

1674. Thomas Willis, personal physician to King Charles II, is given credit for the term “diabetes mellitus. Thomas describes the urine “as if imbued with honey and sugar.” Mellitus is Latin for honey. Let’s just hope it was Thomas’s sense of smell that helped him make this discovery!

1700’s and 1800’s. Many diverse treatments were tried, none overly successful or scientific. Opium intake, leeching (bleeding) and severe calorie restriction diets were tried. The latter was actually the most successful, at least marginally, but hardly a long term solution as people tended to want to avoid starvation!

the modern era


1889. The first giant leap forward occurred when two German doctors, Joseph von Meringand and Oskar Minkowski, discovered that the pancreas and diabetes were related. They removed the pancreas from a dog that subsequently developed diabetes. The link between the pancreas and diabetes was now clear and a flurry of research ensued to discover the exact nature of the link. Unfortunately, initial research was not successful.

May 1921. Despite the repeated failures of those before him, Dr. Frederick Banting began work on discovering the diabetes/pancreas link with the assistance of Charles Best, a medical student. They did their work at the laboratory of Professor John Macleod in Toronto, Canada. Dr. Banting focused his research on certain cells and digestive enzymes in dog pancreas.

July 1921. Dr. Banting was able to generate insulin, then called “isletin.” Through repeated test on dogs without pancreases, he was able to keep the dogs alive, at least for a period of time. The animal manufactured insulin was able to recreate the glucose transfer between the blood and cells in the dogs.

1921. Dr. J. Collip, a biochemist, and Charles Best continued to refine the insulin production.

January 11, 1922. Leonard Thompson becomes the first human patient to receive insulin treatment. At the time, he was 14 years old and weighed only 64 pounds. The initial injection produced only slight improvement. Several weeks later, after further refinement of the insulin, Leonard received another treatment and showed amazing improvement. He recovered to live anther 13 years before dying of pneumonia at age 27.

Spring 1922. Charles Best begins mass producing insulin for treatment at the Toronto clinic where he worked.

1923. Dr. Banting and Professor Macleod received the Nobel Prize for insulin discovery. Dr. Banting split his prize with Charles Best and Professor Macleod split his with Dr. Collip.

1978. DNA breakthroughs now allow for the artificial synthesis of insulin rather than relying on producing insulin in animals.

2013 and Beyond. Over 4000 studies are listed on the United States government website studying diabetes. Will one of these provide the next big breakthrough? (Clinical Trials List)

Hopefully, you have enjoyed this entertaining look at diabetes history!


Summarized and modified from the National Institute of Health, The Genetic Landscape of Diabetes, History of Diabetes (accessed December 2008).