History of Diabetes Mellitus

For thousands of years, doctors have recognized diabetes as a disease, but did not understand its cause. An early Egyptian medical text written around 1550 B.C., called the “Eberus Papyrus”, describes a condition os “passing too much urine”. The Greek physician Aretaeus, who lived in the second century A.D. gave diabetes its name, for Greek word meaning “siphon” or “pass through”. Aretaeus observed that his patients bodies appear to “melt down” into urine.

People observer early on that the urine from people with diabetes was wery sweet. In fact, one way to diagnose diabetes was to pour urine near the anthill. If the ants were attracted to urine, it meant that the urine contained sugar. By the 18th century, physicians added the Latin term mellitus to diabetes, which describes its sugar taste.

In 1776, scientists discovered that the sugar glucose was in the blood of both people with diabetes and people without diabetes. That lead them to suspect that people with diabetes pass sugar from the blood to the urine. But they didn’t know how.

Then in 1889 – more than 100 years after glucose was found in blood – two German physiologists, Oskar Minkowski and Joseph von Mering, found quite by accident that the pancreas was involved in diabetes (I have an article on the pancreas here, take a look). Also you can find more up-to-date information on diabetes following links on the right side. Thank you! While studying how fat is metabolized in the body, they decided to remove the pancreas from a laboratory dog. Much to their astonishment, the dog urinated again and again. Proving that science rewards a prepared mind, the scientists had the foresight to test the dog’s urine for glucose. Sure enough, the dog had developed diabetes when its pancreas was removed. This led the scientists to suspect that some substance in the pancreas somehow prevented diabetes. As scientists embarked on a 30-year quest to find that magic substance, people with diabetes were subjected to a host of so-called cures, including bloodletting, opium, and special diets.

Unfortunately, none of these measures helped the disease. Although some diets did seem to help some older people with diabetes, they did nothing for severely affected young patients with diabetes disease. These patients typically died within several years of developing diabetes mellitus disease. In 1921, Dr. Frederick Banting, a young surgeon just out of medical school, had a breakthrough. He had the idea to isolate the groups of cells called the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas. Banting began his experiments working in the laboratory of a senior faculty member at the University of Toronto, Professor J.J.R. Macleod, an authority on carbohydrate metabolism. Macleod teamed Banting with a young medical student named Charles Best.

Using experimental dogs, Banting’s approach was to tie off pancreatic duct, which connects the pancreas to the intestine. This would destroy mos of the tissue of the pancreas, which would no longer be able to secrete its digestive enzymes into the intestine. Banting guessed that the islets of Langerhans secrete something directly into the blood and these cells would survive. At long last, Banting and Best succeded in treating a dog with diabetes using extract from the islet cells.

Within 6 month after their success with diabetic dog, the two scientists injected their extract into Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old boy who was dying from diabetes, but the body remained ill. A biochemist working in Macleod’s laboratory, J.B. Collip, purified the extract, and the experiment was repeated 12 days later. This time the scientists succeeded, and Thompson, emaciated from diabetes, began to gain weight and lived for 15 years with regular insulin injections, until he died from pneumonia. In 1923, Banting and Macleod were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discovery. Feeling that their collaborators had been slighted, Banting shared his prize money with Best, and Macleod shared with Collip. The team had made an important discovery leading to a diabetes treatment that is still in use today.

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