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Handbook of Diabetes, 4th Edition, Excerpt #1: The History of Diabetes

Jul 7, 2014
Rudy Bilous MD, FRCP
Richard Donnelly MD, PHD, FRCP, FRACP


Diseases with the clinical features of diabetes have been recognised since antiquity. The Ebers papyrus, dating from 1550 BC, describes a polyuric state that resem­bles diabetes.

The word ‘diabetes’ was first used by Aretaeus of Cappadocia in the second century AD. Aretaeus gave a clini­cal description of the disease, noting the increased urine flow, thirst and weight loss, features that are instantly recognizable today.

The sweet, honey-like taste of urine in polyuric states, which attracted ants and other insects, was reported by Hindu physicians such as Sushrut (Susruta) during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. These descriptions even mention two forms of diabetes, the more common occurring in older, over­weight and indolent people, and the other in lean people who did not survive for long. This empirical subdivision predicted the modern classification into type 1 and type 2 diabetes….

Diabetes was largely neglected in Europe until a 17th-century English physician, Thomas Willis (1621-75), rediscovered the sweetness of diabetic urine. Willis, who was physician to King Charles II, thought that the disease had been rare in ancient times, but that its frequency was increasing in his age ‘given to good fellowship’. Nearly a century later, the Liverpool physician Matthew Dobson (1735-84) showed that the sweetness of urine and serum was caused by sugar. John Rollo (d. 1809) was the first to apply the adjective ‘mellitus’ to the disease.

In the 19th century, the French physiologist Claude Bernard (1813-78) made many discoveries relating to diabetes. Among these was the finding that the sugar that appears in the urine was stored in the liver as glycogen. Bernard also demonstrated links between the central nervous system and diabetes when he observed temporary hyperglycaemia (piq û re diabetes) when the medulla of conscious rabbits was transfixed with a needle.

In 1889, Oskar Minkowski (1858-1931) and Joseph von Mering (1849-1908) from Strasbourg removed the pancreas from a dog to see if the organ was essential for life. The animal displayed typical signs of diabetes, with thirst, polyu­ria and wasting, which were associated with glycosuria and hyperglycaemia. This experiment showed that a pancreatic disorder causes diabetes, but they did not follow up on the observation.

Paul Langerhans (1847-88) from Berlin, in his doctoral thesis of 1869, was the first to describe small clusters of cells in teased preparations of the pancreas. He did not speculate on the function of the cells, and it was Edouard Laguesse in France who later (1893) named the cells ‘islets of Langerhans’ and suggested that they were endocrine tissue of the pancreas that produced a glucose-lowering hormone.

In the early 20th century, several workers isolated impure hypoglycaemic extracts from the pancreas, including the Berlin physician Georg Zuelzer (1840-1949), the Romanian Nicolas Paulesco (1869-1931), and the Americans Ernest Scott (1877-1966) and Israel Kleiner (1885-1966).

Insulin was discovered in 1921 at the University of Toronto, Canada, through a collaboration between the surgeon Frederick G. Banting (1891-1941), his student assistant Charles H. Best (1899-1978), the biochemist James B. Collip (1892-1965) and the physiologist J.J.R. Macleod (1876-1935). Banting and Best made chilled extracts of dog pancreas, injected them into pancreatectomised diabetic dogs, and showed a fall in blood glucose concentrations.

Banting and Best’s notes of the dog experiments refer to the administration of ‘isletin’, later called insulin by them at the suggestion of Macleod. They were unaware that the Belgian Jean de Meyer had already coined the term ‘insuline’ in 1909. (All these names ultimately derive from the Latin for ‘island’.)

Collip improved the methods for the extraction and puri­fication of insulin from the pancreas, and the first diabetic patient, a 14-year-old boy called Leonard Thompson, was treated on 11th January 1922. A commercially viable extrac­tion procedure was then developed in collaboration with chemists from Eli Lilly and Co. in the USA, and insulin became widely available in North America and Europe from 1923. The 1923 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Banting and Macleod, who decided to share their prizes with Best and Collip.

The American physician Elliot P. Joslin (1869-1962) was one of the first doctors to gain experience with insulin. Working in Boston, he treated 293 patients in the first year after August 1922. Joslin also introduced systematic educa­tion for his diabetic patients.

In the UK, the discovery of insulin saved the life of the London physician Robin D. Lawrence (1892-1968), who had recently developed type 1 diabetes. He subsequently played a leading part in the founding of the British Diabetic Association (now Diabetes UK).

Among the many major advances since the introduction of insulin into clinical practice was the elucidation in 1955 of its primary structure (amino acid sequence) by the Cambridge UK scientist Frederick Sanger (b. 1918), who received the Nobel Prize for this work in 1958.

Oxford-based Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994), another Nobel Prize winner, and her colleagues described the three-dimensional structure of insulin using X-ray crystallography (1969).

By the 1950s, it was accepted that tissue complications, such as those that occur in the eye and kidney, continued to develop in long-standing diabetes, in spite of insulin treat­ment. The definitive proof that normalization of glycaemia could prevent or delay the development of diabetic compli­cations had to wait until 1993 for type 1 diabetes (the Diabetes Control and Complications Trial in North America) and 1998 for type 2 diabetes (the UK Prospective Diabetes Study – UKPDS).

Until the 1980s, insulin was derived only from animal pancreata, in increasingly more refined preparations. Using additives such as protamine or zinc, the subcutaneous absorption could be delayed, thus providing 24-hour avail­ability using 2-4 injections a day of different preparations.

With the development of genetic engineering, it became possible to produce human insulin and subsequent further manipulations of the molecule have led to a wide range of preparations with different absorption profiles. Further developments along these lines are expected but a continuing dependence upon subcutaneous injection as the main route of administration is likely for the foreseeable future.

In type 2 diabetes oral agents have been available since the 1950s. It is now possible, however, to modify both insulin secretion and its action by using drugs that both increase insulin release from the alpha cell and improve insulin sensitivity peripherally. There is intensive research into ther­apies for diabetes and newer agents will undoubtedly become available as our understanding of the mechanism of glucose homeostasis increases.

These therapeutic areas will be covered in more detail in subsequent chapters.

Further Reading:

Bliss M. The Discovery of Insulin. Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1982

Next Week:  Part 2 Diagnosis and classification of diabetes


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Rudy Bilous MD, FRCP, Professor of Clinical Medicine, Newcastle University, Honorary Consultant Endocrinologist, South Tees Foundation Trust, Middlesbrough, UK
Richard Donnelly MD, PHD, FRCP, FRACP, Head, School of Graduate Entry Medicine and Health, University of Nottingham, Honorary Consultant Physician, Derby Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Derby, UK 

A John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Publication

This edition first published 2010, © 2010 by Rudy Bilous and Richard Donnelly. Previous editions: 1992, 1999, 2004

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