A short history of diabetes

November 12, 2012

A short history of diabetes

Diabetes varies in type and severity, and can cause serious health problems if it is not monitored and kept under strict control.

The condition we know as diabetes has been noted and written about for thousands of years – the first mention of the condition occurs in 1552 BC in Egypt. The physician noted that patients with a mysterious ailment became increasingly emaciated and were inclined to urinate more frequently. It was also noted that ants were attracted to the urine of those with this mysterious disease. This may well be considered the first major breakthrough in the history of diabetes.

The Greeks

By 150 AD Greek physicians were also making notes which contribute to the known history of diabetes. Arateus described this mysterious disease as ‘the melting down of flesh and limbs into urine’ and named the condition ‘diabainein’ – which literally means ‘siphon’ in recognition of the increased urination seen in sufferers. From this word comes the word ‘diabetic’.

It is really from this time that we see physicians gaining a better understanding of this disease.

Water tasters

A quite remarkable historical anecdote in the history of diabetes involves the occupation of so called ‘water tasters’ – these people diagnosed those with suspected diabetes by tasting their urine – if a sweet taste was noted then diagnosis was confirmed. In 1675 the word ‘mellitus’ meaning honey was coined so that the name of this previously mysterious disease became diabetes mellitus.

Developing a test

The next major breakthrough in the history of diabetes came in the 1800s when scientists were finally able to develop chemical tests in order to discover the presence, or absence, of sugar in the urine.

Early treatments

As the medical practitioners of the day began to understand and learn more about diabetes so they began to find ways of managing the disease. The first noted treatment in the history of diabetes was for exercise; often horse riding, which, it was thought would relive the excessive urination.

Dietary changes

By the 1700s and 1800s physicians were beginning to become aware of the role of diet in diabetes and so the first dieticians in the history of diabetes advised their patients to eat large amounts of sugar or only the meat and fat of animals.

By the early 1870s, a period of war, improvement of symptoms was noted in those patients who were experiencing food rationing as a result of the war. By the early 1900s this discovery had led to the development of various fad diets.

1916 – A major milestone

The publication of the textbook The Treatmen

t of Diabetes Mellitus in 1916 by Boston scientist Elliott Joslin introduced principles to the treatment of diabetes which are still used today.


Before the discovery of insulin a diagnosis of diabetes also meant a death sentence. In 1889 scientists in France discovered that the removal of the pancreas from a dog caused diabetes to develop.

By the early 1900s a German scientist has discovered that injecting pancreatic extract into patients could help in the control of diabetes.

By 1920 a Canadian physician began to try out the use of insulin as a treatment for diabetes in animals. The first successful treatment of a human patient came in 1922; the team of scientists involved received a Noble Prize for Medicine in 1923.


Throughout the history of diabetes it can be seen that many exceptional people have been involved in it’s’ discovery, research and treatment – and this is still the case today. Nowadays insulin remains the primary treatment for Type 1 diabetes, dietary changes and increased exercise are still recommended, and whilst the role of ‘water taster’ no longer exists patients are able to test their own glucose levels at home and diabetes is no longer the early death sentence it once was.


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