The History of Diabetes Treatment: What It Taught Us and Where It's Headed

The Fascinating History of Diabetes and What It Has Taught Us

You or a loved one may have type 1, type 2, or gestational diabetes. And you likely know a good deal about your condition and treatment.

But how much do you know about the history of diabetes?

Read on. By understanding its history, you’re bound to have a greater appreciation for the treatments available to you today—and for the ones in the future!

Diagnosing Diabetes with Ants

The history of diabetes starts about 1550 BCE—long before it was understood or even had a name.

The first mention of diabetes symptoms came from an Egyptian physician named Hesy-Ra in 1552 BCE. He wrote about a mysterious disease that caused frequent urination.

The Egyptians weren’t the only ones to observe this condition. Documents reveal that Greek, Indian, Arab, and Chinese doctors were also aware of it, but couldn’t explain it.

Ancient Indians had an odd but effective way to diagnose diabetes. They used ants. That’s right, ants. If ants were attracted to a person’s urine, it was a sign that it contained high sugar levels. They called the condition “madhumeha,” meaning “honey urine.”

Finally, the “mysterious disease” was given a name. The earliest recorded reference to the word “diabetes” came in the 3rd century BCE by Apollonius of Memphis, Egypt.

Early Treatments – from Effective to Deadly

Some of the earliest treatments seem quite modern, such as exercising and following a diet of whole grains and carb-free foods.

Others are downright bizarre and/or dangerous:

  • Rancid animal food
  • Tobacco
  • Narcotics such as opium
  • “Easy-to-digest” meat such as veal or mutton

Identifying Types 1 and 2

As the years passed and research progressed, people had a better understanding of the complex nature of diabetes. By the 5th century CE, the Chinese identified different types of diabetes (which would eventually be called type 1 and type 2 diabetes).

In 1025 CE, the Persians provided a detailed account of what would be named diabetes mellitus.

In 1776, Matthew Dobson confirmed that people with diabetes had an excess of blood sugar. He also noted that diabetes was fatal in some people but chronic in others, which helped to differentiate type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Pups and the Pancreas

In the Middle Ages, people thought that diabetes was a disease of the kidneys. But in 1889, Joseph von Mering and Oskar Minkowski removed the pancreas from dogs. The result: the dogs developed diabetes. This discovery helped doctors understand the important role of the pancreas – a big step closer to discovering a treatment for diabetes.

In 1910, Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer found that the pancreas of people with diabetes couldn’t produce a substance he called “insulin,” which the body uses to break down sugar. This helped explain why people with diabetes had high blood glucose levels.

The Insulin Breakthrough

In the treatment of diabetes, 1921 was a breakthrough year. Frederick Grant Banting and Charles Herbert Best successfully extracted insulin from healthy dogs and injected it into dogs with diabetes. The dogs’ condition improved.

Banting and his team used insulin to successfully treat a person with diabetes in 1922. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine the year after.

In a remarkable show of generosity, Banting and Best made the patent for insulin available for free so that millions of people around the world could benefit from it.

A Half-Century of Firsts

The treatment of diabetes accelerated during this time, with the first:

  • Oral and injectable diabetes medications
  • Urine strips for home testing of blood glucose levels
  • Pancreas transplantation
  • Single-use insulin syringe
  • HbA1c test
  • Biosynthetic human insulin
  • Insulin pen delivery system
  • Non-insulin therapies such as metformin
  • Personal blood glucose monitors
  • Small, external insulin pumps
  • Instant glucose tablets for treating hypoglycemia.
  • Short-acting recombinant DNA human insulin

Is a Cure Next?

Researchers recently announced that a man with diabetes type 1 who received a revolutionary new treatment may be the first person to be cured of the disease. He received an infusion of insulin-producing stem cells—just like the ones his pancreas is unable to produce. Now his body automatically controls its insulin and blood sugar levels.

Experts say the study will take five years to complete. But initial results offer hope to the 1.5 million Americans who have type 1 diabetes.

Looking Ahead with Confidence

The history of diabetes is long and filled with remarkable discoveries. These discoveries have empowered people with diabetes to manage their condition with a variety of convenient, effective treatments. We can all look to the future with confidence with even more innovations to come!

Apria is a leader in diabetes management.

We’re here to help you manage your diabetes. For more information, please contact (800) 311-0880 or visit





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About the AuthorApria

Apria is a leading provider of home healthcare equipment and related services across the USA, offering a comprehensive range of products and services for in-home care and delivery of respiratory therapy, obstructive sleep apnea treatment, and negative pressure wound therapy, along with additional equipment and services.