Understanding and Treating Diabetes Throughout The Ages

Diabetes has plagued sufferers long before it was ever given a name and before the characteristics of diabetes were recognized. Only relatively recently has modern science shed light on the root of the disease and given new hope to patients with diabetes.

As early as 1552 BC, a Greek physician identified diabetes as a disease characterized by frequent urination and emaciation. In fact, the term diabetes is based on the Greek word for siphon and suggests a siphoning off of body fluids through urination. During this time, most cases of diabetes appear to have been fatal.

In about 150 AD, physicians believed that diabetes involved a liquidation of body tissue. Years later, as understanding of the disease grew, diagnosis was made by special urine tasters who sampled the liquid waste of potential sufferers for a characteristic sweetness. In keeping with this, in 1675, the term mellitus, honey in Latin, was added to the name to acknowledge sugar involvement.

Early on, physicians recognized the importance of lifestyle in development and treatment of diabetes. Some of the first disease treatments included an increase of exercise, followed by an awareness of diet in the sixteenth century. During the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870s, physicians noted that some patients with diabetes improved when placed on calorie-restricted war-time food rationing.  As a result, in the early 1900s, popular curative diets emerged based on potatoes, oats, and other starches, while near-starvation was also prescribed.

A landmark event in the diagnosis and treatment of diabetes occurred in 1910 when an English physiologist studying the pancreas discovered insulin. The word insulin itself derives from the Latin term insula, meaning island, referencing the a hormone that helps the body use glucose for energy. The beta cells of the pancreas make insulin. When the body cannot make enough insulin, it is taken by injection or through use of an insulin pump.

By 1916, Elliott Joslin, MD, published the first manual on diabetes treatment. He advocated a combination of severely restricted caloric intake and exercise. Five years later, scientists removed the pancreas from dogs and as a result, found they exhibited symptoms of the disease. Scientists then injected the dogs with pancreatic extracts and found their condition improved. This lead to proof that insulin injections lower blood sugar levels.