Diabetes History

The history of diabetes can be dated back to the Egyptians
The history of diabetes can be dated back to the Egyptians

The number of diabetics has surged in the last ten years, leading to a healthcare burden and growing complications.

But is this a new phenomenon? Have levels only increased in the last few decades? Is this down to wider media coverage and more fastidious medical checking?

History of diabetes

The history of diabetes started in approximately 1550BC.

An Egyptian papyrus mentions a rare disease that causes the patient to lose weight rapidly and urinate frequently.

This is thought to be the first reference to the disease.


Diabetes was given its name by the Greek Physician Aretaeus (30-90CE).

He recorded a disease with symptoms such as constant thirst (polydipsia), excessive urination (polyuria) and loss of weight.

He named the condition ‘diabetes’, meaning ‘a flowing through.’

Later, Galen (131-201CE) noted the rarity of this condition and theorised that it was an affliction of the kidneys.

After this period, diabetes is rarely mentioned. Indeed, it seems to have been a mystery or incredibly rare during the Middle Ages.

The first clear reference to the disease came from Avicenna, the famous Arabian Physician. He described in detail the complications of the disease, and how it progressed.


Around this period, ‘uroscopy’ came into being as a way of identifying disease. The colour, sediment and odour of the urine were examined to try to establish what was wrong with the patient.

Some physicians even tasted the urine, and this is apparently how diabetes was given its second name, mellitus, meaning ‘honey’ in Latin.

Calorie intake

By the early 19th Century, chemical tests had been devised through which it was possible to detect excess sugar in the urine. Despite therapies being proposed, in the absence of a cause, they proved unsuccessful.

It was not until the Franco-Prussian War, when the French Physician Bouchardat noticed that restricted diets helped his patients, that calorie intake was recognised as important.

Around this period, microscopic studies by a medical student known as Paul Langerhans had revealed the composition of the pancreas. In so doing, he had identified tiny cell islands whose function was unknown.

Barron and the 1920s

It was not until 1920 that an American called Moses Barron linked the Langerhans cells with the basis of diabetes mellitus.

Picking up on the research of Barron, a doctor called Frederick Banting conducted critical experiments linking the pancreas and diabetes. He discovered an essential hormone called insulin, named after the ‘islands’ of cells described by Langerhans.

Banting and one of his colleagues were recognised for their achievement with a Nobel Prize.

Throughout the 20th century, treatment and understanding of the disease has advanced significantly. Although prevention and management remains difficult, the life of an average diabetic is becoming both longer and easier all the time.

Type 3 diabetes

Recently, a third type of diabetes, Type 3 diabetes was discovered by US scientists. However, many people are still disputing the validity of this third type of diabetes in its own right.

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