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Diabetes – it’s one of the oldest known healthcare conditions, first identified and described some 3,500 years ago in Ancient Egypt. People have been trying to understand and improve the lives of people living with diabetes ever since, and today we’re lucky to have a life-saving treatment that’s changed the lives of millions. 

In this blog we take a look at some of the more bizarre theories, treatments and developments in the history of diabetes.

Early diagnosis by ants and urine tasters

Even thousands of years ago, people began to understand that diabetes had something to do with the amount of sugar in people’s urine. 

The first written mention of diabetes was in 1550BC in an Egyptian text that describes a disease that causes rapid weight loss and frequent urination. 

Around 500BC, Hindu doctors came up with the first method of diagnosing diabetes. They poured the urine of people suspected of having diabetes on the ground to see if ants were attracted to it. If they were, they were diagnosed with a condition called “madhumeha”, or “honey urine”. Doctors observed that people suspected of having this condition also had extreme thirst, excessive urination and foul breath. 

Of course, we now know this condition to be diabetes. The word diabetes itself came from the Greek word for “siphon” and “go through”, as people with diabetes “passed water like a siphon”. At that stage, Greek doctors assumed that diabetes was a condition mainly affecting the kidneys.  

Later, in the 11th century, one of the more bizarre jobs in the history of diabetes was that of the “water tasters”, who diagnosed diabetes by tasting urine to see if it had a sweet taste. 

In 1675 the word “mellitus”, meaning honey, was added to the name. But it wasn’t until the 1800s that scientists began developing tests to detect sugar in people’s urine.

Hindu doctors described diabetes 2500 years ago as ‘honey urine’ because ants and flies were attracted to it. #diabetes #diabeteshistory Click To Tweet

Doctors learnt about diabetes during war

Back in the 5th century, Chinese doctors observed that people with diabetes tended to be richer and more overweight. Around the same time, doctors in India noted that there were two types of diabetes: one that started in childhood, and another that occurred in adults who were overweight. 

Hundreds of years later, food restrictions during war helped doctors understand the impact of diet on type 2 diabetes. 

French doctor Apollinaire Bouchardat noticed during the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s that the symptoms of people with diabetes improved and they even lived longer during periods of food rationing. 

Bouchardat developed diet plans to treat diabetes, which led to fad diets in the early1900s – including the oat diet, potato diet, and the starvation diet. He was also one of the first medical researchers to hypothesise that diabetes was related to the pancreas.

In World War I, deaths from diabetes fell in countries with blockades affecting food distribution. 

Today, doctors recommend the same principles of dietary changes to manage diabetes.

Doctors learnt about diabetes during war

Treatments: exercise, cold baths and opium

Lifestyle changes were understood to help patients in the 10th century, although some were less effective – and evidence-based – than others. 

Doctors recommended exercise as part of the treatment plan for diabetes, and even suggested activities such as horse riding. Drugs including digitalis – commonly used to treat heart conditions – and opium were also prescribed to suppress the appetite. 

In 1892, William Osler recommended a diet of mostly fat and protein, and no fruit or vegetables. 

He also suggested people with diabetes should “avoid worry and lead an even, quiet life” in a good climate. Even wearing certain types of fabrics was frowned upon. He suggested people living with diabetes should wear flannel or silk, take a daily cold bath, get moderate exercise and have regular massages.

While the advice on fabrics is tenuous, today exercise and stress management are still cornerstones of effective diabetes management.

In the 19th century, people with diabetes were advised to lead a quiet life and wear flannel or silk. #diabetes #medicalhistory Click To Tweet

The miracle of insulin

Thankfully, we now have better understanding of the causes of diabetes. Importantly, we also have access to synthetic insulin as a life-saving treatment, and it’s still the only effective treatment for type 1 diabetes. 

In 1921, insulin was discovered by a team of Canadian scientists: Frederick Banting, Charles Best and JJR Macleod, and purified by James Collip. In 1922, a 14-year-old boy with diabetes who was gravely ill became the first person to be given synthetic insulin. 

In one dramatic day, Banting, Best and Collip injected an entire ward of children who were dying from diabetes. As they reached the last child in the ward of 50, the first children began waking from their comas to the gasps of families around them. 
Insulin made from cows and pigs was used through the 19th and 20th centuries, but lots of people had allergic reactions to it. The first synthetic “human” insulin was made in 1978 using E. coli bacteria.

The miracle of insulin

No longer a disease of affluence 

Once seen as a disease affecting the wealthy, type 2 diabetes no longer discriminated against a particular social class. 

In fact, over the past 30 years, growing rates of obesity and poor nutrition have pushed diabetes to epidemic levels across all groups, irrespective of wealth. Rates of diabetes are rising more quickly in countries with low and middle incomes rather than those with high incomes. 

Today, diabetes affects about 422 million people worldwide, and almost 1.6 million people die each year from the condition.

In Australia, 280 people develop diabetes every day, which is one every five minutes. About 1.7 million Australians are living with diabetes. 

Diabetes is the fastest growing chronic disease in Australia – more than cardiovascular disease and cancer. That’s why it’s so important to know whether you may be at risk.

Diabetes is the fastest growing chronic disease in Australia, affecting 1.7 million Australians. Know your risk. #diabetes #diabetesrisks Click To Tweet

Pre-diabetes can sneak up on you

Pre-diabetes means your blood glucoses levels are higher than the normal range, but not yet high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes. Many people with pre-diabetes don’t have any symptoms. That’s why it’s important to know whether you’re at risk. 

The good news is, if pre-diabetes is diagnosed and managed with dietary and lifestyle changes early, it’s possible to stop it from developing into type 2 diabetes. 

Thousands of Australians are unaware that they’re at risk of pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes. 

Diabetes has common risk factors. If you have two of more of the following risks, then it’s recommended you see your doctor for a simple test: 

  • You have a family history of type 2 diabetes and/or heart disease
  • You are overweight or obese (your waist is greater than 80cm for women and greater than 94cm for men)
  • You are physically inactive
  • You have high cholesterol
  • You have high blood pressure
  • You smoke
Pre-diabetes is a silent condition that can sneak up on you without any symptoms. Get to know the risk factors and see your doctor if you’re at risk. #diabetes #diabetesriskfactors #diabetestest Click To Tweet

Check your risk at home

If you’re in the high risk category for diabetes or have any related health concerns, then we recommend you speak to your doctor. The good news is that diabetes can be averted or controlled if caught early. 

You can also do an easy, at-home fingerprick blood test to check your average blood sugar levels from home, if that’s an easier option. You can access our Diabetes Test Service online, and then discuss your results with your local doctor if you have any concerns. 

For more information about diabetes and pre-diabetes go to Diabetes Australia. You can also learn more about your risk of diabetes by using this handy diabetes risk calculator

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