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The history of diabetes: How it was discovered and how it evolved

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Alexi Melvin

While there are many modern methods (and cutting-edge technologies) for managing diabetes, the history of diabetes spans hundreds of years.

When diabetes was first discovered, it was largely considered a death sentence, as the body is unable to survive without insulin. However, society's understanding has evolved, and it's now known to be an entirely manageable condition — people who have diabetes can live long and incredibly fulfilling lives.

The first discoveries

Looking back, it's difficult to determine the exact moment that diabetes was discovered. The early Egyptians and physicians in India spoke of a condition that resulted in excessive thirst, weight loss, and frequent urination — with sugar commonly found in the individual's urine, according to Healthline.

But it was the Greeks that first isolated diabetes mellitus (type 1 diabetes) as its own unique condition. The term "diabetes mellitus" comes from the Greek word "diabetes" (to siphon or pass through) and the Latin word "mellitus" (honeyed or sweet), noted News Medical.

In 1889, German physicians Joseph von Mering and Oskar Minkowski discovered that a lack of efficient pancreas function caused diabetes. They found this to be true when they removed the pancreas from dogs and confirmed that it caused the animals to develop diabetes, The New England Journal of Medicine explained.

Insulin obtained its name in 1910, when English physiologist Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer realized that it was likely a substance produced by the pancreas that was needed to survive. Insulin means "island," giving a nod to islet cells, which produce hormones that help control the level of sugar in the blood, according to Frontiers in Endocrinology.

Early methods of management

According to an article in Diabetes Care, before the discovery of insulin as a potential management method for diabetes, recommendations ranged from diet changes — such as consuming high amounts of fat and protein and low amounts of carbohydrates — to exercise and massage. Some even suggested the use of chemicals and salts. None of these treatments proved highly effective.

In 1921, Canadian scientist Frederick Banting (with the aid of Charles Best) successfully extracted insulin from healthy dogs and injected it into dogs that had diabetes. One year later, the first human with diabetes was treated with insulin, explained the American Diabetes Association.

For a long while, insulin from pigs was used to treat diabetes, until 1978, when the first human-based, synthetic insulin (known as Humulin) was created.

The first model of a blood glucose meter was made available to doctors in 1971. The meter was able to give an approximation of blood sugar by reading results on a "color chart" after applying a drop of blood to a strip, noted diabetes1.org.

Modern approaches to diabetes

Since human-based insulin was created, there have been many variations that cater to each individual's specific needs.

Short-acting insulin was introduced to the market in 1996, as Diabetes Therapy outlined. Several different long-acting and short-acting insulins are now available, allowing individuals to personalize their daily diabetes management.

The first insulin pen was invented in 1954 as an alternative to a traditional syringe. Over time, insulin pen models have evolved and become more advanced. Now, there are "smart pens" that track your insulin delivery and blood sugar recordings and give recommendations based on your data. Then, in 1974, the first insulin pump was invented. The earliest model was called the Biostater, and it was so large that it had to be worn as a backpack. The Biostater had the ability to dispense insulin every five minutes and monitor blood glucose levels — but it was really only used to treat patients who were struggling with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA).

Now, insulin pumps are smaller than a beeper and come with advanced functions to be able to program carefully calculated dosage settings for each individual as advised by their doctor. Both tubed and tubeless insulin pump models are available today.

Present and future innovations

Diabetes technology is ever-evolving, and it hasn't stopped moving forward in recent years. One of the most groundbreaking tools is the continuous glucose monitor (CGM). These devices allow users to track their blood sugar levels in real time and make informed decisions based on visible trends.

CGMs gave many individuals peace of mind and helped them take a more passive approach to their daily management. The first CGM was approved in 1999, and these monitors have been approved by the FDA to essentially replace traditional finger sticks and glucometers.

Meanwhile, DIY looping systems and insulin pumps with the ability to be linked to CGMs have made the future of T1D treatment look bright. And two Automated Insulin Delivery systems have been approved by the FDA so far, reported Healthline.

The history of diabetes is long, and the road ahead looks equally as exciting.

Hoping to learn more about insulin, management devices, and testing supplies? Explore the library of articles on Health Insights and check out related products on edgepark.com.

Alexi Melvin

Alexi is a journalist who has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, Beyond Type 1 and other digital publications. She is also a voiceover actor and reiki master. In addition to her dedication to being a voice for people living with T1D everywhere, she has always been passionate about meditation and energy healing. Before getting her Bachelor of Arts degree at The New School University, she studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute.

Social Media links: https://www.instagram.com/alexienergyart/ https://twitter.com/aleximelvin

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